With Oregon and other West Coast states poised to lift mask mandates tonight, Multnomah County leaders paused at a sunset the night before to remember the community members who died in the COVID-19 pandemic, and acknowledge the uncertainty — and likely challenges — still ahead.
In a brief but emotional gathering of County employees on the Willamette River, Chair Deborah Kafoury recalled the challenges faced since the first County resident tested positive exactly two years ago, on March 10, 2020. Since then, more than 111,640 County residents have tested positive, and more than 1,090 county residents have died of the virus.
Adam Peña, an employee with Aging, Disability and Veterans’ Services, bowed his head as she spoke. He came to the remembrance with a laminated photo of his mother, Yolanda Jimenez, who died of COVID-19 in 2021. He said she had long urged him to leave his old job for a better one, and after she died, he had the courage to apply with the County. He came to the gathering to remember her, saying “I owe her everything.”
Chair Kafoury said that every day since that first positive case, County employees have “fought to keep our community, our loved ones and ourselves safe. So when we stand for a moment of silence on the Hawthorne Bridge, I hope we can try to make some space in ourselves to honor those who have died.… To hold their loved ones in our hearts.… And also to begin reckoning with the depths of what we have experienced together.”
Health Department Director Ebony Clarke reminded the group of how much has changed in two years. “When we learned of the first positive, we had no vaccine, almost no tests, and very few masks. We had no vaccine teams. We had seven contact tracers for all of Multnomah County,” she said.
“But what we did have was each other, a deep sense of responsibility to our community, and a workforce at Multnomah County and — especially at the Health Department — who stepped up.”
Public Health teams administered more than 10,000 COVID tests, many of them at outdoor clinics, even during intense heat and freezing cold.
Public Health hosted 414 vaccine clinics, each with a cultural or linguistic focus to better support communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. And together, Public Health and the County Health Centers have vaccinated more than 70,000 community members, more than half of whom identify as people of color.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services and Multnomah County Emergency Management opened 11 temporary shelters directly responding to COVID-19, first using the Oregon Convention Center and City of Portland community centers, and then using motels, to preserve and eventually expand shelter capacity beyond pre-pandemic levels. Motel shelters provide safer living spaces for people at higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID.
Separately, the County stood up two “voluntary isolation motel” programs where symptomatic people who were in shelter, in crowded housing or leaving medical settings could isolate and receive testing. More than 2,900 people have used those programs since the first one opened at the Jupiter Hotel in March 2020.
And all throughout, the County maintained and even expanded existing services.
The County’s health centers immediately added telemedicine to their services, and soon more than 50% of visits were taking place by phone or video. Meanwhile community health workers helped patients by providing rent assistance and offering support for isolation or quarantine. And as soon as monoclonal antibody treatments and therapeutics were created, County clinics began providing those to patients.
Creativity was required systemwide. During the first four months of the pandemic, after libraries closed to in-person visits for the first time since the 1918 influenza pandemic, audiobook checkouts jumped up by 26% and e-book checkouts went up 45% compared to the year before.
Then last year, after libraries reopened to in-person visits, social workers based at the Central Library helped 160 patrons — 83 of whom reported experiencing houselessness — connect to resources including shelter, permanent housing and more.
Since March 2020, restaurant inspectors completed more than 12,000 virtual and in-person inspections while Environmental Health distributed $5.3 million dollars through the CARES Act to support 2,800 struggling small restaurants and mobile units.
And The Leadline processed 24,845 customer requests for free water testing kits as part of its contract with the Portland Water Bureau.
The Board of County Commissioners went virtual March 18, 2020, only returning to in-person meetings in November 2021. Since first going virtual, the Board has held 217 meetings, briefings and budget worksessions, including 59 briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic.
And Multnomah County’s Elections Division conducted five elections — three of them in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, before vaccinations were available. Yet elections workers carried on, processed ballots, fielded phone calls and provided services to voters, all while maintaining physical distance, wearing face coverings and using an ample supply of hand sanitizer.
Director Clarke said it wasn’t only what County employed did, “But how we did it,’’ Director Clarke said. “We worked with community, in community… we could not have responded at the level and in the way that we did without the close to 75+ agencies that so graciously walked along side us. I can truly say that we have built and strengthened relationships with community partners, in this pandemic.’’
Dr. Jennifer Vines urged the community to move into this next phase of the pandemic with compassion, knowing that there were still many people for whom the virus poses great risk, including people with underlying health conditions and children too young to be vaccinated.
As Chair Kafoury led an illuminated procession onto the Hawthorne Bridge for a moment of silence, she said, “We are moving forward through a world that’s changed dramatically around us over the last two years. And we move forward as an organization made up of people who have also been changed deeply by the pandemic.
So we will allow ourselves to hold grief in one hand and hope in the other… to hold both trauma and resilience… hurt and healing… as we move forward into this next phase of the pandemic together.”