COVID 19 on our doorstep:.
The austere measures imposed on Wallowa County and the rest of Oregon by Gov. Brown’s orders might seem unwarranted to many of us. Public meetings banished. Performances in the OK Theatre canceled. Restaurants closed. Schools shuttered. Gyms closed. And all of this without a single confirmed COVID-19 case in the county and only eight people tested of the 7,000 county residents. However, the confirmation of one confirmed case in Union county and one in Grant county means that however isolated we may seem COVID-19 has us in its sights.
The measures imposed, including Monday’s order requiring the closure of many more businesses and social and working distances, echo the measures imposed during the 1919 “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic. It was a viral outbreak that killed 40 to 60 million people globally, and occurred in the darkest days of World War I. In Wallowa County, schools and theaters closed for a month beginning Oct. 17, 1919, and other businesses, including restaurants, were ordered closed for portions of the week by Wallowa County health officer S.D. Taylor. There’s no available statistics for the numbers of people who died of influenza in Wallowa County, although the Oct 17 Record-Chieftain reports one and possibly two infant deaths from the disease. But the paper did report on Nov. 9, 1919 that 40 people had died in Pullman, Wa.
In COVID-19 we face a similar but potentially more contagious and equally deadly disease. It is more transmissible than influenza, it affects both young and old. Its first target is the respiratory tract, but it can also take a toll on kidneys and heart. It is nothing to flirt with, and everything to exercise precaution.
Because, as in 1919, precaution and quarantine are our only defense. We have no vaccine. There is no cure save bolstering an individual’s own immune system with ventilators, fluids, and other existing medical procedures. NIH has started clinical trials of a vaccine and of a treatment, but it will be months before we know if these medications are successful, and even longer before they are available to the public.
Gov. Brown published a press release last week observing that rural communities seem not to be taking coronavirus seriously. How can we? Our medical providers cannot provide tests for all those who are symptomatic of the disease or who think they may be harboring coronavirus without symptoms. It’s great to know that Tom Hanks and Paul Ryan have had run-ins with coronavirus—but shouldn’t we all have access to the same tests? We would all be a lot happier if we knew how our neighbor or the grocery clerk, or the person who hands us our takeout meal at a restaurant was doing. Gov. Brown’s administration seems in no particular hurry to come to the aid of rural communities, although they are quick to criticize us for not taking coronavirus seriously. And we’d also like to know where all the ventilators and medical supplies touted as available by our President actually are.
The governor’s orders also contain ambiguous language that requires school districts to provide lunches for all students, even those who ride buses to school from far-flung ranches and homes, with no consideration as to how districts will pay for these lunches, many of which may go to waste. Similarly, schools are supposed to provide classroom content to students during the governor’s mandated school shutdown. This is quite do-able if you live in Portland or Salem or other urban centers where the internet is ubiquitous and every student has a school iPad or laptop.
But Wallowa County or Baker County, or Harney County or Lake County, etc., are not Portland. Our students don’t have school-supplied laptops, and many don’t even have reliable internet at home.
But we in rural Oregon ARE taking this seriously. We are complying with the Governor’s orders, including closed businesses, social distancing, and working from home because just like in 1919, these are our first and most reliable defenses against easily transmissible and potentially deadly disease. We want to protect ourselves, our neighbors, and our community. Our commissioners have even declared a state of emergency, urging visitors to stay away—a request with significant economic downsides, but great community support here.
Each of us needs to do our part to keep us all safe. And so far, that’s exactly what we are doing. Let’s keep up the good work, the neighborly cooperation and our dedication to getting through this. Our lives will likely be changed by these sweeping social, medical, and economic events. But eventually, the OK Theatre will reopen, just as it did in 1919, and so will the schools, and eventually Safeway and Dollar Stretcher and others will stock full shelves of toilet paper and bread. Until then let’s continue to heed medical advice and Gov. Brown’s orders. Stay Safe, Stay Healthy. Keep going.