March 11: Two years into the pandemic, reflecting on what we’ve endured, where we’re headed

On Thursday, the two-year anniversary of the first person in Multnomah County to test positive for COVID-19, I joined my County colleagues for a remembrance and moment of silence for the neighbors we've lost and reflect on all we've endured together.

Dear friends and neighbors,

As Oregon prepares to lift the indoor mask mandate tonight, the first few weeks of the pandemic feel like a lifetime ago. And in many ways, it was.

Maybe you remember the unsettling mix of anxiety, speculation, uncertainty and anticipation as news about a virus across the ocean began to show up more and more often on our TVs and newsfeeds, with increasing levels of both curiosity and concern. 

Then the virus showed up stateside, just across the Columbia River in Washington State. Shortly after, on Tuesday, March 10, 2020 — exactly two years ago yesterday — we learned of the first person in Multnomah County to test positive for COVID-19. Four days later, that individual, a veteran, became the first Oregonian to pass away from the virus. 

Since then, more than 1,090 county residents have died of the virus. More than 110,000 have tested positive. 

I hope that we can find time to pause during this solemn anniversary to mourn the passing of all those who we’ve lost and to hold their loved ones in our hearts, even if the sheer magnitude of the losses might feel difficult to wrap our minds around.

But I also recognize that there are additional shades and shapes of loss: of routines and relationships, of livelihoods and stability, of opportunities and wellness. It’s important, I think, that we give ourselves the space to process and grieve these, too.

Still, despite waves of trauma and loss, we have endured. And I remain amazed and humbled by the countless ways Multnomah County, our programs and our employees have shown up for our community over the last two years.

As the Local Public Health Authority, we’ve led the efforts to limit the spread of this virus in our community and keep people as safe as possible, offering guidance, direction and education as our understanding of the virus evolved. We have tested for and tracked the spread of the virus. 

We’ve met community members where they are in order to inform and vaccinate. In fact, Multnomah County Public Health has hosted more than 400 vaccination clinics, making intentional efforts to ensure access to communities that have historically been overlooked and underserved, and those that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Over 70,000 people in our community have been vaccinated at a County vaccine clinic or Health Center, and we’re working to keep that number growing.

The County has also strengthened our safety net services to meet the needs of the thousands of households who have been destabilized by the pandemic, or pushed to even more precarious circumstances by the disruptions. We’ve worked with our community partners to distribute rent assistance to more than 10,000 households since last July. We have provided wraparound support services to households that had to quarantine and enhanced food access programs. 

The Joint Office of Homeless Services moved quickly to adapt our shelter system, opening 11 temporary shelters in direct response to the pandemic, eventually including motel shelters to preserve and then ultimately expand beyond our pre-pandemic shelter capacity. We also started two “voluntary isolation motel” programs that served as temporary housing for symptomatic individuals who were residing in a shelter or a crowded housing arrangement, or leaving medical settings, could isolate and be supported.

The Morrison Bridge will be lit in blue lights through Monday, March 14, in honor of the Multnomah County residents who died from COVID-19.
There are so many more ways in which Multnomah County has served the community’s existing and emerging needs. Whether by ensuring fair and secure elections, distributing nearly $15 million in small business grants, keeping our bridges and health clinics running, staffing settings where people are in our direct care, ensuring people’s safety, and much more, every employee at the County has made a difference.

The pandemic isn’t over by any stretch, but it is changing, along with the ways we are responding to it. With the statewide indoor mask mandate lifting tonight thanks to a dramatic drop in case and hospitalization rates, we are standing at the edge of a new stage in the pandemic. 

At the same time, the last two years of this pandemic COVID-19 have made it abundantly clear just how intertwined we are with each other. The countless sacrifices we’ve made — that you’ve made — have sprung from that deep, abiding belief in our interconnectedness. 

So as we move forward, Multnomah County will do all we can to help us do so together, knowing that we don’t face the task of healing, or of facing ongoing challenges still ahead of us, alone. 

Please stay safe and stay healthy,

Deborah Kafoury
Multnomah County Chair

News You Might Have Missed

  • The pace of our progress using the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure to make a difference in our community and in the lives of people surviving outside is set to only accelerate from now. Six months after the first funds from the measure were made available, the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ Quarter 2 report shows that the resources are already being used effectively. Since July, we’ve added new shelter beds and more shelter options, with programs opening last year and more in development. We’ve also helped hundreds of people move into permanent homes, proving that housing isn’t some far-off promise, but rather something that can happen — and is happening — right now. And we’ve quickly responded across our system by increasing our street outreach, community cleanup and behavioral health service efforts.  
  • A few weeks ago, I toured the Department of Community Justice East Campus, which underwent recent renovations. I was grateful to see that the improvements we made to the building also serve to help us meet the needs of our community members while aligning with the County’s work of advancing safety, restoration and healing.  
  • The Board of County Commissioners received a report on the implementation of the emergency investments we made last fall in behavioral health services, environmental health, homeless services and more.  
  • In the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, I requested that the Morrison Bridge be lit in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The lighting display, which ran from Feb. 28 to March 6, was a small way that Multnomah County could show its support for the people of Ukraine, as well as our Ukrainian friends and neighbors. OPB also ran a neat story about the Morrison Bridge lights. 
  • My chief of staff, Kimberly Melton, brought forward this year’s Black History and Future Month proclamation. She, along with two panelists, spoke candidly and beautifully about health and healing in Black and African American communities.  
  • I shared some reflections in my last newsletter about the time I spent with Ja’Mari and Aki as they led an “In My Shoes” walking tour of the Lents neighborhood. This County story follows a tour of Cully led by other Word is Bond participants, and it’s well worth checking out to get an even better idea of the kinds of stories the young men shared.  
  • I had the opportunity to speak at the All Hands Raised Partnership Council in mid-February about the mental health crisis among Oregon children and adolescents, and urged leaders to work together across sectors to help deliver services and supports that are desperately needed.