County Commissioners Talk COVID and Redistricting

Lane County commissioners and county staff discussed how to contain the spread of COVID-19 and how to best help businesses and schools during the pandemic at their July 28 meeting. They also started to plan a new process for changing voting districts after the 2020 Census, which they hope will be fair and non-partisan.

The meeting was live-streamed on the county website. A video of the full meeting is also available online.


Pandemic Response

During County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky’s presentation on the pandemic response, he told commissioners that the county is focusing on five main areas: containing the spread, giving health care providers supplies they need, offering economic support for residents, providing information to the public and preparing for the fall (when schools reopen online or in-person and the unhoused population are exposed to colder weather). 

The county pandemic response for the unhoused population and preparing for winter was discussed in detail at the joint city and county homelessness session later that day. More information on that plan is available here. A video of the full meeting is available on the Lane County website here

Karen Gaffney, the director of Lane County Health and Human Services, presented a detailed report on the pandemic response.

She said as of July 28, there were 464 total confirmed and presumptive coronavirus cases in Lane County. There were 35 currently infectious cases, two Lane County people hospitalized for COVID and 1.6 percent of COVID tests in Lane County came back positive over the past week. She said the numbers for both new and currently infectious cases were down from the previous week, and that the test positivity rate was well below the state average, which is above 5 percent. 

Gaffney said the county has made huge improvements in testing capacity from March and April when it struggled to do 100 tests per day. The average number of tests per day over the last two weeks was more than 700. 

In Lane County, 38,000 people have now been tested for coronavirus. Out-of-county tests can still take up to two weeks to complete, but testing done in the county at McKenzie-Willamette hospital has a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours, she said. 

There have been seven mass testing events led by Lane County, including one at the Lane County Fairgrounds on June 29 for essential front-line workers, like service industry employees. 

Increasing turnaround time and testing capacity is a priority for Lane County Public Health, Gaffney said. The University of Oregon is awaiting FDA approval on a saliva test that could increase testing capabilities dramatically. 

Gaffney said providing free testing to low-income people, people of color and other marginalized communities will be a priority. This includes regular COVID testing at the jail and at Sponsors Inc., a supportive housing complex for people who were recently incarcerated.

 Testing, she said, is important because it has helped with contact tracing, another tenet of the county’s COVID response.

Gaffney said that as of Monday morning, the contact tracing team was monitoring 342 people who had been exposed to COVID in Lane County. The team consists of 123 trained county staff, volunteers and UO students. Only 57 were needed to work on contact tracing last week. 

Along with about $5 million of federal money that the county received and about $10 million that it will likely receive for its COVID response, Gaffney said the county received an additional $400,000 from the state agency Business Oregon to help businesses struggling during the pandemic. This money will go to businesses that have not already been helped by the county or by the federal Small Business Administration loans that were part of the CARES coronavirus relief act. 

Gaffney told the board that according to recently released data, about 4,000 Lane County businesses received federal loans of $150,000 or less, for a total of $156 million, and 800 Lane County businesses received loans of over $150,000 for at least $303 million and up to $735 million. She said the exact amounts of individual loans are not available, so she could only provide these ballpark numbers.

Gaffney reminded commissioners that schools are currently required to give the county reopening plans by Aug. 15. She said the three options for schools are fully online, hybrid and fully in-person education.

But according to new requirements for fully reopening K-12 schools to in-person education laid out by Gov. Kate Brown on July 28, counties must have a test rate positivity of below five percent and less than 10 cases per 100,000 residents per week for three consecutive weeks. Lane County, and nearly every other county in Oregon, does not currently meet these requirements.

Whether schools plan to reopen for in-person learning or not, Gaffney said all schools need to have a backup plan for a fully-online curriculum.

Gaffney asked the community to do their part to make sure schools can reopen as much as possible so that Lane County children can get the education they deserve. 

“Please social distance, even though it’s summer and you want to be together and you’re tired of the virus,” she said.  “This is the time to just dig deep and do your part to contain the spread of disease.”


Redistricting Discussion

Plans for a new process for choosing commissioners’ voting districts in Lane County was another big point of the meeting.

The county renews or changes districts after every Census to make commissioners’ districts roughly equal in population-based on demographic changes, according to the county website. 

Commissioner Pat Farr said that counties across the country have different redistricting policies, and Lane County has changed its approach in recent history. 

He said after the 2000 Census, new commissioners’ districts were drawn by a single elected official, the Oregon secretary of state, a process that Farr described as “absurd.” After the 2010 Census, the final approval on redistricting was given to the Board of Commissioners, which he and other commissioners also agreed was an unfair system.

Redistricting can shift voting bodies to favor one party or candidate over another, which can lead to long term change in leadership in an area. Purposely drawing district lines to give a group or person an unfair advantage is called gerrymandering.

Farr said that in the last decade, state officials have told him that they were purposely gerrymandering county districts, so finding a fair process for redistricting is crucial. 

“Let’s have a good process,” Farr said. “Really what we need to come up with is something that everybody agrees is not going to be political.”  

The commissioners discussed different systems for this, and ultimately decided to consider a proposal they received from the League of Women Voters to establish an independent commission that makes the final decision on district lines, a system similar to the one that’s being used in California.

To weigh public opinion on this type of commission, and how it should be appointed and run, the commissioners decided to each contribute a list of groups, like political groups, labor unions and environmental and social justice organizations, that would be invited to weigh in on the issue via a letter to the board. Each commissioner will send the names to county counsel department director Stephen Dingle by Aug. 7. 

They decided that part of the public input will also include a public forum on the evening of Sept. 15. Commissioners also discussed the possibility of creating an online survey with specific questions on this issue and a discussion with the groups that write the letters to the board as further strategies to weigh public opinion.

Commissioner Joe Berney said he was optimistic that a fair process would be established, and that he believes all the commissioners want the voting districts to be fair. 

“I think it’s very clear that nobody wants to gerrymander here,” he said.