SALEM, Ore. — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sat down with KGW's Cristin Severance to talk about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine mandates and the state's response during the recent heat wave that killed over 100 Oregonians.
Editor's Note: Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.
Is another mask mandate coming?
Severance: Let's start with masks. When we walked in the building I noticed there is a sign that says masks recommended, where do you stand on masks? Will you be issuing another mask mandate for Oregon?
Gov. Brown: So here's the good news: Oregon has done an incredibly good job getting people vaccinated. We met president Biden's goal of seven out of ten adults being vaccinated by the end of June. The challenge is of course the delta variant and it is extremely transmissible. So Dr. Dean Sidelinger, our state epidemiologist, is recommending that when folks are indoors that they be masked up.
Severance: So you're sticking with a recommendation right now.
Gov. Brown: Absolutely.
Severance: What metric would we have to meet for you to change to a mandate?
Gov. Brown: Here's the challenge that we have and that is getting more Oregonians to get vaccinated. We believe that the best messengers, the most trusted messengers, are local healthcare providers and local leaders in the communities that are struggling to get community members vaccinated. I do not believe that a statewide mask mandate helps in that effort.
We are however going to be requiring masks for schools K-12 starting in the fall. We want to make sure that kids are in school five days a week. We know that it is the best way for our kids to learn and it is the most effective way to stop the transmission, particularly for our younger kids who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Severance: So masks required for K-12 schools but a mask mandate [statewide] you do not believe will help get the unvaccinated vaccinated?
Gov. Brown: That's correct. We know the science is really, really clear that masks are another effective tool that we have to slow the transmission, to slow the spread of the disease. So I want to continue to encourage Oregonians, when they're inside in public places, to mask up.
Could there be new COVID restrictions?
Severance: Let's talk about hospitalizations. We are reaching that 300 number, yesterday 272 people were in the hospital because of COVID. All along that 300 number was the standard before you imposed lockdowns or restrictions, will you impose restrictions if we reach 300 [hospitalizations] again?
Gov. Brown: We are moving at this point in the pandemic to a more traditional, localized public health response. The communities are best suited at this point, working in partnership with their local health, public health officials and their medical experts, to make decisions about how to protect their community members and their more vulnerable populations.
Again, we know that vaccines are absolutely the best tool that we have to protect yourself and your loved ones, to prevent hospitalizations, to frankly limit the severity of the disease. So vaccines work, they're trusted and they're effective. We are focused on making sure that Oregonians who are eligible for the vaccine continue to get the shot.
Severance: You led a lot of the lockdown and restriction decisions and you're really moving this to counties now, is that correct?
Gov. Brown: We are moving to a more traditional public health response and that is at the community level, the county level. The challenge is, in terms of Oregon, we are a large state geographically. We have different impacts of the virus in different communities and the local level is the best place to be making those decisions at this point in time.
Will state employees be required to get the vaccine?
Severance: Will you be requiring state employees to get the vaccine?
Gov. Brown: We are obviously looking at the state of California and New York City and the Department of Veterans Affairs and what tools they're using to encourage and support vaccinating their employees. We're having conversations with our partners about that work, and we'll be announcing some decisions over the next couple of weeks.
Should hospitals be able to mandate the vaccine for employees?
Severance: So earlier you said the best people to really convince the unvaccinated to get vaccinated are local doctors, health care workers. We know that some of them are not getting the vaccine, do you support hospitals requiring a mandate?
Gov. Brown: I think it's incredibly important that our health care workers who are on the front lines of this pandemic and understand the horrific impacts that this virus has particularly on vulnerable populations...It's critically important that they get vaccinated. That's why health care workers were at the top of my priority list for our vaccinations. We are meeting with the broad coalition of health care workers today, this week, to talk about how we can encourage and support the entire health care community to get their members, their employees vaccinated.
Severance: Would a mandate or changing the law preventing hospitals from requiring the vaccine, is that part of the conversation?
Gov. Brown: As you're probably aware, we have a law in Oregon that prohibits mandatory vaccines for health care workers. We're working right now with our health care partners to figure out what is the best path forward for Oregon and how we can be most effective and making sure that every single health care worker receives this vaccine, if they are able to.
Severance: Would you like to see hospitals be able to make that choice?
Gov. Brown: I've been very, very clear. I think it's really important for employers to encourage their employees to get vaccinated, whether they're health care workers, whether they're working in technology, whether they're working in manufacturing, whatever folks are doing.
I think it's incredibly important that everyone who is eligible for a vaccine get vaccinated. It is the only tool that we have that will literally stop the virus in its tracks.
Severance: So, yes?
Gov. Brown: Yes, yes, please. We need more people to get vaccinated. There's absolutely no question about it. As I mentioned, this delta variant is extremely transmissible. We have to get more Oregonians, frankly, more Americans vaccinated.
Severance: Would you ever call a special session so [the state legislature] could reverse this law, pass a new law?
Gov. Brown: I'm looking at all the options that we have on the table to make sure that folks on the front lines are getting vaccinated and get the protection that they need.
Preparing for future extreme heat events
Severance: Let's talk about heat deaths. The OEM (Office of Emergency Management) report came out yesterday. Do you think it went far enough in terms of changes, specific changes?
Gov Brown: So I just have to say this heat dome event that occurred in June was unprecedented. It is the first time the Pacific Northwest has seen this level of heat in at least decades and probably centuries. I was horrified to learn of the deaths of over a hundred Oregonians, that should not happen. These people should not have died.
I asked for this expedited after action review to say we can do better next time. Certainly this is a good first step but we are seeing extremely challenging climate events. We have now had four or five over the last year and a half. These events are historic and unprecedented. We know they are being driven by climate change and I think it's incumbent upon all of us — the state of Oregon, the local counties, our city partners, the federal government, and frankly individual Oregonians.
We are all going to have to step up and do more and have to be better prepared in terms of these emergencies. The best thing that Oregonians can do is to sign up for emergency alerts through oralert.gov. Every Oregonian needs to know how to be prepared, whether it's for an earthquake or as we saw in February, this unprecedented ice storm. As you know, over half a million Oregonians lost power. So we have to be better prepared.
And as we saw from the wildfires in September, no corner of the state is immune from these wildfires. So we all have to be ready. We all have to be better prepared and the state has to do more and that's exactly what we're doing.
What will be different during this upcoming heat wave?
Gov Brown: So to prepare for the heat event that's happening on Friday, possibly Saturday as well, according to the after action review, we need to do better around communication and coordination.
We're doing exactly that and working with our local partners. We are making sure that the 211 line, which is a nonprofit coordinated through the counties, that that is fully staffed 24/7.
We are working to make sure that public transit, and I honestly just had a call with the new director at TriMet last night to say: we need you to make sure that fares are free for Oregonians that can't afford a fare and need to get to a cooling center, or honestly just need to ride on a bus to stay cool. [TriMet] is doing that. So there's absolutely more work to be done. I am committed to doing that and I know our local community partners are as well.
When did you find out about the heat-related deaths?
Severance: When it comes to the [heat-related] deaths, we know that people died Sunday and Monday but your office was not told until Wednesday, how does that happen?
Gov Brown: Clearly we need to have better alignment in terms of communication and that means from the county level to the state level, and we're working to make sure that that is better aligned.
Severance: The state had a pep rally on Wednesday and dozens and dozens of people had died. Was someone held accountable for not telling your office, from not stopping that event from happening?
Gov Brown: Just for the record I was unaware...the Oregon State Police has accepted full responsibility for that lack of communication. And they understand that it was absolutely unacceptable, as you're also aware, Washington went ahead and had an event as well that day.
What else needs to change for future heat events?
Severance: What else would you like specifically changed?
Gov Brown: I've had a meeting with the coordinated care organizations —they're the providers that deliver health care to our most vulnerable Oregonians, roughly one out of four Oregonians are on the Oregon Health Plan. I have asked them to reach out to their providers to make sure that their patients, their clients that have underlying health conditions, get a phone call to say that there are resources available.
If you need a fan, if you need an air conditioner and if you need additional help, reach out. They have also done an after action report. We're still in the midst of reviewing that report but I really appreciate their willingness to step up and help protect and make sure that our most vulnerable Oregonians get access to the healthcare that we need.
Severance: Do you feel that Oregon is better prepared the next time?
Gov. Brown: Absolutely, but there is always more that we can do.