This essay appeared as an op-ed in the Portland Business Journal on December 10.
Last week, more than 2,100 Oregonians tested positive for COVID 19 in a single day, a record number of new infections, which is expected to double over the next two weeks. As COVID cases continue to climb, Oregon hospitals may be pushed beyond their capacity, raising the specter that there may not be enough hospital beds—particularly ICU beds–to accommodate all those who need critical care, whether that need is from a coronavirus infection, or a heart attack or some other cause.
This dangerous trend makes it more essential than ever for our citizens to do their part in slowing the spread of this deadly virus through the use of masks and social distancing measures. While the state has done a good job conveying this message, official government communications alone may not be enough. Trust in government is at an all-time low, especially within minority communities, which have been disproportionally impacted by COVID. This problem has been exacerbated by the unfortunate politicization of public health during the recent national election cycle and the resistance in parts of our society to being “told what to do” by government.
I am not suggesting that the state back off from its aggressive messaging about the importance of complying with sound public health measures. What I am suggesting is that there are other, perhaps more effective, messengers that have not yet been fully mobilized—the trusted local leaders living in every community across our state, whose voices may carry more weight than directives from the state. I am referring particularly to leaders in the BIPOC community. I am referring to leaders in the network of community-based problem-solving and delivery structures we have established over the years, including watershed councils, coordinated care organizations, early learning hubs and local economic development organizations. I am referring to religious leaders, business, labor and civic leaders, Rotary clubs, 4H clubs, chambers of commerce and philanthropic organizations.
Expanding the capacity and reach of state led efforts by engaging trusted local leaders is essential, and will not only help combat the current surge in COVID 19 infections, but will help ensure that as many Oregonians as possible take the vaccine once it becomes available. Oregon currently ranks 45th among the 50 states in terms of the percentage of our population that is vaccinated. Furthermore, for understandable reasons, Black and Indigenous Americans, Latinos and other communities of color have a deep distrust, not only of government, but of the health care system as well. As a consequence, only 14 percent of Black adults and 34 percent of Latinos say they trust vaccine safety. And if some historically disadvantaged segments of our society fail to get vaccinated, it will perpetuate and exacerbate a form of de facto segregation at a time when we are trying to dismantle systemic racism.
Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two injections given several weeks apart. It will be critical to have the systems and infrastructure in place to ensure that those who get their first shot can smoothly and efficiently have access to the second and that they don’t get lost somewhere in between. This infrastructure, in turn, must give special attention to those historically underserved populations that are currently suffering the greatest health disparities. Putting these systems in place cannot happen overnight.
The current situation is a public health crisis, careening towards a public health catastrophe. It is imperative that these local leaders be engaged, empowered and resourced now to lead the efforts in their own communities. This effort must reach every part of our state, both urban and rural, and must especially reach out to those Oregonians who, because of structural social inequities, have been disproportionality impacted by the pandemic.
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment driven by an urgency that cannot be overstated. Engaging trusted local leaders in common cause will not only help address this public health crisis, but it can begin to address the systemic disparities in our health care system, and offer a path to bring us back together and start the long process of repairing the tattered fabric of the Oregon community.