Oregon health officials are projecting that an omicron variant surge of COVID-19 could easily overwhelm hospitals in the state beyond even what we say during the delta surge early this year. They’re currently expecting a peak in February with a rapid rise after holiday travel. Omicron cases are already being identified in Oregon. State officials are leaning hard on messaging that everyone in the state should get vaccinated and receive boosters. While vaccination is key to reducing the harm of the virus on an individual level, focusing on that preventative measure without fixing the issues preventing many people from getting vaccinated won’t get us where we need to be. We know that while some people refuse vaccinations for political and religious reasons, there are standing barriers for people from marginalized backgrounds, like being unable to take off time for vaccination and recovery, logistical issues like transportation, and underlying medical inequities. COVID testing systems have similar problems:
Covid at-home test: $25— Bree Newsome Bass (@BreeNewsome) December 17, 2021
Minimum wage: $7.25/hr
So, 3 1/2 hours of work at minimum wage to afford an at home test. That’s half a day’s earnings.
Free public testing: 2 1/2 hr wait in line
That’s $18 lost wages assuming someone can take off work to stand in line.
So what do we need to do right now? Individual precautions (like cancelling holiday travel) are necessary, but we already know that a lot of people won’t take precautions without instruction from on high and Kate Brown isn’t planning to enact new COVID restrictions.
At this point, we have several techniques for slowing the spread of COVID. Because of the speed that a virus can go through congregate housing (such as homeless shelters), Portland needs voluntary isolation spaces. In 2020, several motels and hotels made such rooms available, either for free or paid for by government agencies like the Joint Office on Homeless Services. We need isolation spaces to be made available to folks without access to stable housing, as well as people who share living spaces. We also need a new moratorium on camp sweeps from both Multnomah County and the city of Portland.
We also need to support teachers and students reexamining in-person learning. Portland Public Schools’ board and the Portland Association of Teachers have yet to come to an agreement on a manageable schedule moving forward and an omicron surge will complicate those negotiations. Schedule shifts are not enough to create safe teaching environments; most classes take place in older buildings with poor ventilation. Some schools with the option to open windows or teach classes outside are in areas with high levels of pollution. We need to push for the school board to make capital investments into schools, as well as mental and physical health resources for teachers and students.
Multnomah County and the state of Oregon have both extended their COVID emergency declarations into 2022. Those declarations create some freedom in government responses to the pandemic, but as we’ve seen over the past two years, that’s not nearly enough. We need robust paid sick leave and other financial supports to enable people who have been exposed to stay home. Oregon may have enacted protections for sick leave, but paid sick leave is still only available to full-time employees of businesses large enough to have at least six employees. In industries like food services, many people still have no way to afford staying home when they’re sick, let alone just when they know they’ve been exposed to COVID. Any time you have a chance to talk to an elected official or candidate for public office in Oregon, ask about what they’re doing to improve access to paid sick leave.
Lastly, variants will continue to pop up until vaccines and other support are widely available worldwide. Wealthy countries like the U.S, Germany, Norway, etc. report more than 70% of their populations have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. But countries that have been exploited to build that wealth, such as Nigeria, Haiti, and Ethiopia, have struggled to vaccinate even 10% of their populations. Individual action will not stop the spread, but we can each push elected officials in federal government to take action, including suspending patent laws, dramatically increasing funding to organizations like COVAX, and pressuring for-profit companies to reduce prices. Oregon’s federal representatives are generally in support of such actions, so while it’s good to remind them of your backing, holding other elected officials accountable is more valuable.