Lawmakers Begin Preparing Oregon’s Response to Coronavirus

Lawmakers Begin Preparing Oregon’s Response to Coronavirus

Like many states throughout the country, the coronavirus outbreak has wreaked havoc on Oregon and its people. Within the last week, the governor has ordered strict social distancing policies to limit the spread of the disease, closing all schools and many businesses, in an effort to ease the strain on hospital capacity. The state has an extremely limited volume of testing kits compared to neighboring states and has the lowest hospital capacity per capita in the country, creating a significant vulnerability for the public health response to the virus.

Oregon lawmakers are preparing to enter into a special session to aide the state’s response to the outbreak. Legislative leadership has designated a special committee and tasked it with developing a coordinated economic and policy response to the unique challenges facing the healthcare system, businesses, and workers as the state tries to flatten the curve of the disease. The committee held its initial hearing on Wednesday.

The governor’s office and state agencies briefed members of the Joint Special Committee on Coronavirus Response on their coordination efforts with local public health departments, hospitals and health systems, and other emergency responders. The Oregon Health Authority announced the opening of a mobile emergency room at the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem and an agreement with Quest Labs to supply 20,000 testing kits. Nevertheless, the state expects the impact on the hospital networks to be overwhelming and is struggling to procure additional testing kits and personal protective equipment for frontline health workers.

Nik Blosser, Chief of Staff for Governor Brown, made the economic fallout from the coronavirus abundantly clear to committee members. The state is anticipating a steep demand on the social safety net at the same time as tax revenues are expected to decline due to the near stoppage of economic activity. “Our need will far outweigh our resources,” he said. “Until we have a better picture of the situation, we need to be extremely careful with state resources.”

Representatives from the business, labor, and nonprofit communities commented on the acute pressure on the economy. The common themes from presenters were the immediate problem of cash-flow for local businesses, the difficult financial decisions all firms are facing, and the consequences of those decisions on housing, food, and income security. The representatives offered policy options that would aide their constituencies, including easing the access to and increasing funds for the unemployment insurance program, suspending or modifying state and local taxes to increase access to capital, and providing immediate tax relief for businesses maintaining payroll.

The committee says it will move swiftly as it considers potential solutions to the initial coronavirus response package and is expected to meet again as soon as Friday. The governor and legislative leadership have said a special session could be scheduled within a couple of weeks, and some members of leadership have suggested there could be multiple special sessions to address the needs in stages.