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County commissioners want end to state COVID-19 restrictions

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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneProtest in downtown Medford Thursday evening.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneProtest in downtown Medford Thursday evening.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneProtest in downtown Medford Thursday evening.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneProtest in downtown Medford Thursday evening.

Two of Jackson County’s three commissioners voted for a proclamation Thursday stating they will seek an end to state-imposed COVID-19 restrictions being imposed on the county, and they will support legislation to curb the governor’s powers during emergencies.

Commissioners Rick Dyer and Colleen Roberts voted for the proclamation, while Commissioner Dave Dotterrer voted against it.

“I completely agree with the words and the sentiments in this proclamation,” Dotterrer said. “But I think the record is clear that this will cause no change in state policy.”

Roberts and Dyer acknowledged they have no power over Gov. Kate Brown and the COVID-19 restrictions state health officials have devised. But they said they have to stand up to the measures because they have hurt businesses and residents.

The proclamation doesn’t shield businesses from Oregon Occupational Safety and Health fines if they violate state COVID-19 restrictions.

Roberts said opposition to the state COVID restrictions is growing across Oregon. She noted commissioners in other counties have passed their own proclamations, and many commissioners previously joined together in a letter voicing opposition.

“We need something different from the state,” Roberts said.

Dyer said people are writing letters, sending emails and calling the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority to ask for an end to the restrictions on businesses and activities. He said at some point, the opposition will reach a critical mass that could trigger a change in state restrictions.

“There’s an old saying that there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back. What that is, we don’t know. But we need to keep piling it on that camel,“ Dyer said.

The proclamation states that Jackson County is in a crisis from the economic and mental health impacts of state restrictions.

It says the county will continue to communicate with the governor’s office and ask that she never again impose extreme risk category restrictions on Jackson County. It says commissioners want all of the state’s mandatory restrictions to be removed and all compliance with safety measures to be voluntary.

The proclamation says the county will support moves by the Oregon Legislature to curb the governor’s emergency powers during the current pandemic and for future emergencies. It says the county supports legislation for the state to compensate business owners and residents who have suffered income losses.

Jackson County is moving out of extreme risk restrictions Friday. The state blocked indoor dining in restaurants and severely curbed capacity at gyms and indoor entertainment venues for one week in 15 counties because of rising COVID-19 hospitalization rates across Oregon.

Brown said Tuesday she doesn’t expect any counties will move back under extreme risk restrictions in the future, but she hasn’t announced any changes to state criteria that would prevent that from happening.

Counties move into extreme risk restrictions if their new COVID-19 cases surpass a rate of 200 per 100,000 population, if the number of people diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus in hospitals statewide hits 300 or higher, and if COVID-19 hospitalizations increase by 15% or more over seven days.

The statewide hospitalization increase rate was 14.9% from Tuesday, April 27, to Tuesday, May 4, the measuring window used by the state.

That allowed 15 counties, including Jackson County, that had been under extreme risk restrictions to move to looser high risk restrictions effective Friday.

State officials announced the news Tuesday evening.

However, Monday night, a state official had sent a warning email to commissioners that hospitalizations of COVID-19-positive patients had increased by 18.2% across Oregon. That meant 15 counties would stay under extreme restrictions and three more counties would join them, according to an email by the state official obtained by the Mail Tribune.

The 18.2% hospitalization increase matches up with a Monday, April 26, to Monday, May 3, measuring window, according to a screenshot of OHA data.

OHA Director Patrick Allen also said in a Monday night email that COVID-19 hospitalizations had increased by 18.2% using a cutoff time of 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

In an email exchange, Dyer complained to OHA that the state was not using the same windows of time to measure the number of COVID-19-positive people in hospitals and the rate of increase in hospitalizations. The state was using one seven-day measuring period that showed statewide hospitalization numbers over 300 at the start of that period, but a different seven-day measuring window to show hospitalizations grew more than 15%.

If the state used the same measuring window for both criteria, one or the other would not have been met, according to Dyer.

It takes high state hospitalization numbers plus a high state hospitalization growth rate to trigger the extreme risk restrictions in counties with extreme levels of new COVID-19 cases.

On Tuesday, the governor’s office did not put out an expected press release announcing restriction levels until after 5 p.m.

When the announcement came, the news was different than the statements made by state officials in Monday night emails.

On Tuesday evening the governor’s office said the hospitalization increase rate had dropped below 15%, so no counties would be under extreme risk restrictions.

OHA data show a measuring window from Tuesday, April 27, to Tuesday, May 4, produced a COVID-19 hospitalization growth rate of 14.9% ― putting the state just under the 15% extreme risk trigger.

Dyer said he did not get an explanation from state officials why the measuring window had changed from one that yielded an 18.2% hospitalization increase to one that yielded a 14.9% hospitalization increase.

The Mail Tribune did not get a response from the governor’s office about the discrepancy by deadline Thursday night.

Dyer said he doesn’t want to take credit for the switch, but he said he does track the data closely and regularly communicates with state officials about concerns. He said he grew concerned when he saw the state appeared to be using different measuring windows when tracking criteria that could lead to shutdowns.

“When I saw it, it just raised a red flag,” Dyer said.

Dyer said he posted about the discrepancy on Facebook.

He said the state’s extreme risk restrictions are devastating to communities and community morale when they are in effect.

“You feel a palpable feeling of frustration and anger. The mood is really somber,” he said.

Dyer said he feels a great sense of relief that businesses can move out of the extreme risk restrictions.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.