Schools vs The Economy

Governor Kate Brown:


We in our household feel you have done an amazing job of trying to control the spread of COVID-19. I am retired faculty physician from OHSU and my wife is a retried Pediatric Endocrinologist.  We have been following this closely and I have tried to keep current on the medical literature and epidemiology studies. It is wonderful that you are collaborating with scientists and experts in five states. I have been acting as a resource to the local hospitalists, public health director and County Commissioner, as I have more time to read the journals.


Despite your efforts, the number of cases is rising. This creates a challenge for the superintendents and principals of our public schools. It may also create an economic depression if businesses must close again. I have a suggestion that (if it is successful) might allow schools to fully, yet safely, reopen in October and businesses to be fully functional in time for Christmas shopping and concerts.


For many merchants, including restaurants, the Christmas season can account for half their revenue, so making it possible for everyone, including us older citizens, to be able to be in public safely, maybe even at a Christmas concert, would benefit the economy greatly, even if it meant restricting the economy this summer.


I propose shutting down even tighter than we did in April.  However, it should be planned carefully with a lot of Public Service Announcements to get buy in from most Oregonians. Support from County Commissioners in Eastern Oregon would also be essential. Have a specific start date-say August 9 and have a very specific end date about 6 weeks later.  Businesses can plan for the shutdown with a couple of weeks’ notice and also know when to stock supplies for reopening. If the shutdown is successful, reopening can progress rapidly over a few weeks. (Bars might need to be closed or curfewed for longer). If the shutdown is not successful, a slower reopening might be prudent, but a promise would have been made that reopening would occur at a set date in September and the promise needs to be kept, if at all possible.


Last time we closed it was to “flatten the curve” so that the health system would not be overwhelmed (a danger Umatilla County may soon face). This time we need to “flatten the curve” so the Public Health services can catch up.


Every effort must be made to expand testing and contact tracing. The Oregon National Guard may need to be activated. Local funding needs to be made available to expand testing in local hospitals. Every community needs to have adequate shelter for anyone testing positive who cannot safely isolate at home, especially our agricultural workers living in crowded housing and our Native Americans who live in multi-generational settings, as well as some in urban settings with limited resources.


Travel would need to be discouraged, just like Hawaii has done.  This might necessitate coordinating this with Washington or the other neighboring states. Also, it is important to recognize that certain political boundaries are meaningless geographically. Parts of Northern California, such as Modoc County are really more part of Oregon and the Mountain Time Zone portion of Oregon is economically Idaho. Clark County is really part of Portland.


With aggressive testing, nearly all positive cases can be quarantined. Of course it would really help to shorten the turnaround time for PCR testing.  Pool testing might help that to quickly find the positives. With isolation, the virus will have difficulty spreading.  Therefore the new case numbers should drop drastically during this six week shutdown. Perhaps we will have several days of zero new cases.


It would be good if prior to school starting the end of August, all treachers, students and their families could be tested during the two weeks before school starts.


Also, before more than online classes can be considered, school districts must be protected against potential litigation should a student get COVID-19 and suffer complications.  Also the worker compensation program for school district employees must cover the risk of COVID-19.


The challenge of another shutdown, I recognize, is that many will need to be furloughed and funding from the Federal government for unemployment is limited after July.


Still, Oregon could show to the rest of the country what is achievable. Better yet, if this were a collaborative effort of three or more Western States (although it will be a challenge for southern California adjacent to Arizona), Oregon would be surrounded by a buffer in late Fall and Winter.


With new case numbers close to zero, the risk of opening schools back to near normal will be low, although teachers may still need to wear face shields, but the interaction provided by in class learning can return, with students even able to safely collaborate (although it might be awhile before choir practice can resume).


If the numbers can stay low through October (may have to cancel Halloween), stores could be open and unrestricted after Thanksgiving. Church services and Christmas concerts and movies could again be held. Even Nutcracker performances could return.


I realize that this is not an easy proposal. I am saying that our children are more important than the economy.  However, a tight, but limited lockdown will not only allow schools to return closer to normal, but make it safe for more individuals to participate in economic activities at a much sooner time.


Cordially yours,


Ralph Eccles

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