MEDFORD, Ore. — Meeting via Zoom for a staff meeting on Thursday, Jackson County's Board of Commissioners considered the response to editorials critical of their leadership during the Delta surge of COVID-19.
With Jackson County experiencing some of the highest case rates and COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state, putting tremendous strain on the local hospital systems, critics have have pointed to the county-level leadership for a perceived lack of messaging in favor of masking, vaccinations, and physical distancing.
It began with a column from Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that compared outcomes in Jackson County to those in the highly populated Multnomah County, where a considerably higher portion of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Most recently, it came in the form of a letter from a bipartisan group of current and former local elected officials who urged the Board to "speak strongly and frequently" to constituents about embracing these public health measures.
In Thursday's meeting, the Commissioners made clear that they strongly disagree with these characterizations of their efforts.
"The insinuation that we haven't done anything is patently false," Commissioner Rick Dyer said.
Dyer said that the County has been quick and responsive with requests from Jackson County Public Health and the local hospital systems for resources, indicating that JCPH functions as the County's messaging on public health matters like COVID-19.
Commissioner Dave Dotterer expressed doubt that the Board weighing in vocally to support public health measures would sway anyone's outlook on COVID-19 countermeasures such as vaccinations, agreeing with an earlier comment from Dyer.
"Yes we can be part of that, but I think there are some people that actually believe that somehow that would dramatically increase the numbers, and I don't believe that," Dotterer said.
"What the research has shown is [healthcare professionals] are responded to, are the best messengers . . . and the worst, and the least trusted, sadly, is elected officials and the media," Dyer said. "Sometimes if you're out there and you're stumping too much about it, it works against you and you get more resistance, you get more division, and you get more dissension in your community."
The Commissioners agreed broadly that they have been effective in responding to the pandemic, but disagreed about how to respond to the criticism. Commissioner Colleen Roberts shared a draft letter of response countering the allegations, but Dyer and Dotterer said that they preferred to issue a letter simply laying out what they've done effectively during the pandemic rather than fueling debate.
Roberts referenced a Harvard study that correlated wildfire smoke in 2020 with an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Pacific Northwest, implying that this might be at least partially responsible for Jackson County's current surge. Dyer opposed including the reference in the Board's response, preferring to stick a catalogue of the Board's actions to date.
Ultimately, the Board decided to revisit the response letter next Tuesday with input from each of the Commissioners — potentially deciding to issue individual statements instead of one from the Board.
"I just have an issue with people not knowing what we've done, making claims that our citizens are suffering because of our inability to lead," Roberts said.
This is a developing story and will be updated with more details as they emerge.