The next global pandemic looms. Will Oregon and the world be more prepared?
Maybe. But panic, scramble and then relax is the more typical pattern of response to a threat. Oregon should do better. The world is not going to get less crowded or less connected. We can’t allow ourselves to get sick of all the focus on sickness.
With the virus raging, now may not be the best time to distract health policy experts and politicians with pandemic preparedness. There are plenty of lessons to learn from this outbreak, but there also are some old emergency preparedness plans worth dusting off to see if they are adaptable to an outbreak. Those plans had their home in Eastern Oregon.
The former Umatilla Chemical Depot near Hermiston stood as a threat to everyone for miles around. While the U.S. Army did a solid job disposing of the piles of chemical munitions there, the federal Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program worked with Hermiston and other communities to ready everyone from grade school students to parents to police officers and firefighters about what to do if there was a terrible accident at the depot that could mean danger for those living nearby.
Massive annual exercises trained first responders and others on how to keep safe, including on the proper use of personal protective equipment and how to shelter at home. Yes, a chemical emergency is a much faster moving event than a virus outbreak, but there are parallels, and one key element of CSEPP’s work worth considering is developing community buy-in.
The program worked diligently to encourage residents near the depot to take preparation seriously. Local community leaders such as county commissioners, mayors and police chiefs played vital roles in pounding home that message. The program also went a long way in making the effort a bit easier for folks to protect themselves, providing, for example, free kits to seal homes. A virus preparedness kit, then, could have some proper face masks, sanitizer and perhaps toilet paper.
Adapting and implementing those plans might need some help from the state, but probably not a federal agency or program.
At the national level, however, Congress needs to pass another relief package. The Oregon Legislature should do something about renters who may be evicted when the moratorium expires — among other things. There also are a couple longer-term matters to address.
Authority is one. Gov. Kate Brown’s executive orders have faced repeated legal challenges. A most recent one came from the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association. ORLA sought an injunction that would have ended Brown’s two-week freeze. ORLA argued other similar businesses did not face as extensive regulations. A federal judge rejected it.
Earlier this year there were questions about the restrictions on places of worship in Oregon. A U.S. Supreme Court decision on Wednesday, Nov. 25, blocked the state of New York from enforcing attendance limits at places of worship while the issue continues to be argued in court. The court said New York’s limits did not appear to be applied equally and singled out “houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
Mask mandates and other measures are sensible responses to prevent a deadly virus from spreading. When your actions could endanger others is the fuzzy line where freedom ends. It doesn’t mean everything Brown does is OK. Executive orders lacking a foundation in science should be fought and scrapped. But it’s not unreasonable for Brown to compel people to try to minimize risk to others.
What role should the Legislature have in making decisions about such sweeping regulation of freedom and the economy? Now its role is near zero. Is it right that Gov. Kate Brown should be able to revise and extend emergency orders for month after month? At what point should the law require a governor to get legislative approval? Can the Legislature be nimble enough and functional enough to respond to that? All questions worth revisiting.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a national campaign to commemorate the 1918 flu pandemic. It was a way to remind people of the dangers of viral pandemics — deaths, the disruption of lives and the economy. People won’t need that sort of messaging now. But government at all levels needs to take action to ensure we are better prepared for the next one.