At the latest CitySpeak Forum, The Corvallis Advocate hosted recently re-elected Democratic State Rep. Dan Rayfield. We asked about the current political landscape in Oregon and what to expect from the next legislative session.
In a pandemic-fueled climate, lawmakers will deal with more uncertainty than usual. Most political observers anticipate a plethora of issues around healthcare, the budget, and election law.
Leading up of Rayfield’s appearance, The Advocate heard an update from a panel of local health officials, including Benton County Health Interim Co-Directors Charlie Fautin and Danielle Brown, as well as Samaritan Health’s infectious disease specialist Dr. Adam Brady, to discuss local trends and institutional preparations along with an updated view of the virus itself.
Local Health Officials
While Oregon is faring well against COVID-19 compared to most other states, new cases numbers have recently been spiking up dramatically here and nationally. Corvallis saw a noticeable bump in diagnoses as students returned to Oregon State University for fall term.
Fautin said Benton County residents have exercised caution and helped keep the pandemic more in-check locally. He warned that increasing cases are related to social gatherings, particularly recent Halloween parties, birthdays, and other parties, gatherings to watch sporting events, and weddings. He agreed with the governor’s calls to keep socialization within your household for the time being.
“That’s really what we’re seeing now is these small groups,” Fautin said. “People eating, drinking, having their masks off, being with people they know and they feel safe with, but in reality anybody can be carrying [coronavirus].”
As the winter flu season bears down on the U.S., Brady said Samaritan is taking precautions to ensure adequate capacity not only for COVID-19 patients, but also for any other respiratory illnesses. However, he noted a rise in patient numbers across a five-hospital network, driven by the coronavirus pandemic, adding that the state mandates a certain number of beds in reserve for a coronavirus surge.
“We are seeing, as a five-hospital system, more people with COVID-19 being hospitalized than any other time in the pandemic,” Brady said. “But we do remain with adequate capacity at present, an adequate number of ventilators and ICU beds at the moment.”
Perhaps less visible but still dangerous, depression and anxiety cases are also expected to go up in Benton County, according to Brown. She warned that isolation amid the pandemic creates a sense of fear and dread among other mental health symptoms, though a significant increase in requests for service has not yet been seen.
“We do expect that we’re going to see an increase in depression and anxiety related to coronavirus,” Brown said. “Especially as we move into the winter months with the shorter days, less ability to get out into the outdoors.”
When it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine, despite recent breakthroughs the immediate projections are less than positive. Experts including Fautin predict a grim winter. Widespread vaccination might not be effective until next summer. Brady is cautiously optimistic, but he questioned how well vaccinations will work and what length of time immunity might last.
As the discussion turned to schools, the panelists showed some consensus on taking a measured, adaptable approach for returning students to the classroom. It was suggested that families weigh the risks and benefits individually, but also noted that there are downsides to keeping kids off campus such as burning out on screen time and a lack of social interaction opportunities.
With ever-present concerns about having enough personal protective equipment for healthcare works and first responders, Brady confirmed he is confident PPE supplies would hold up during a localized coronavirus surge, noting an effort to stockpile supplies of masks and gowns over the summer as cases were relatively low. He also noted the purchase of hundreds of portable air purifying respirator hoods that are currently being rolled out.
On the question of another shutdown, Fautin said he hopes that’s not in the cards, but preventing that will depend on how the community responds, whether or not precautions are widely followed.
“A shutdown is the last thing we need,” he said. “And I think it’s up to us to avoid that.”
State Rep. Rayfield (D)
Through the 2019 legislative session, the state budget was considered to be in fair shape. Rayfield said after a complicated session that included $2 billion for schools in the Student Success Act, the 2020 budget was expected to come out ahead. But just as Republicans were walking out of the capitol building in protest of cap-and trade legislation, the coronavirus was creeping into the nation.
Rayfield said Oregon will need to shore-up a $1 to $2 billion budget shortfall in the current biennium, and the coming biennium’s budget gap could reach $4.5 billion. In the context of Oregon’s budget, that’s a 15-20% dip in general fund revenue in the next biennium. Gov. Kate Brown has already made statements about considering across-the-board cuts to state agencies, though the legislature is looking for more precisely-targeted reductions.
“The impact is always talked about in monetary impacts,” Rayfield said. “It’s not talked about in human impacts … how does someone who has lost their job, who has been left behind by our economy, catch back up?”
Expecting more Republican legislative walkouts in the future, Rayfield said the tactic adds to the lawmaking backlog as constitutional deadlines expire before work can be completed. And there is plenty of work to be done – increasing coronavirus testing, wildfire assistance, a housing package, economic stimulus, investments into behavioral health, and much more. With everything facing budget cuts, it would be better to have everyone at the table for the hard discussions coming.