Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, in announcing on Tuesday, May 4, that Baker County and 14 other counties would move from extreme risk to high risk under the state’s COVID-19 restrictions Friday, May 7, implied that she was bestowing a significant favor on those fortunate counties.

“Based on today’s numbers, I am keeping my commitment to Oregonians,” Brown said.

This hardly qualifies as a sacrifice on the governor’s part.

Brown was merely adhering to the standards she had set. Oregonians should not feel grateful that their governor merely does what she said she would do.

The margin that prompted the governor’s announcement Tuesday was decidedly narrow.

In April Brown announced that no county would move into the extreme risk category — which carries the most stringent restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining in restaurants and bars — unless two statewide statistics, both involving COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals, were met.

One threshold is 300 patients statewide. The other is a weekly increase in hospitalization rates of 15% or more.

Oregon continues to exceed the first mark — there were 330 COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide as of Wednesday, May 5. But the percentage growth in hospitalization rates was 14.9%.

So by a margin of 0.1%, Baker County will drop from extreme risk, where it’s been since April 30, to high risk this Friday.

Yet the county would not have qualified for that move based solely on case counts and test positivity. And that highlights the hollowness of the governor’s recent rhetoric.

In an April 27 press release, Brown said that “Counties will stay in extreme risk for a maximum of three weeks, and will be able to move to a lower risk level sooner if their COVID-19 case rates are brought down in the intervening weeks ...”

That sounded promising.

Well, not exactly.

The governor’s statement seems pretty straightforward, even if it lacks any numerical criteria. But what the governor didn’t say is that although state officials are reviewing counties’ risk levels weekly, they’re still being assessed based on COVID-19 cases and test positivity rates over a two-week period. During the most recent measuring period, April 18 to May 1, Baker County had 61 new cases and a test positivity rate of 10.6%. To qualify for high risk rather than extreme, the county needs to have 59 or fewer cases and a test positivity rate below 10%. Had the statewide rate of hospitalizations increased by 0.1% more — 15% instead of 14.9% — Baker County would have remained at extreme risk for at least another week, through May 13.

Yet the governor said counties could move to a lower risk level if their case rates “are brought down in the intervening weeks.”

Baker County did that. During the second week of the April 18-May 1 period, the county’s new cases dropped by 55% — from 42 to 19. Its test positivity rate fell from 13.6% to 7%. Those are significant improvements. Yet they wouldn’t have yielded any benefit to the county; the state would have continued to punish the county and many of its businesses based on statistics nearly two weeks old.

Ideally, counties will no longer have to worry about moving back to extreme risk. Brown said Tuesday that she doesn’t expect any counties to return to that risk level for the duration of the pandemic.

The governor should, however, have made the move to high risk for Baker and 14 other counties immediate rather than waiting until Friday. Consider that on April 29 Brown, in a letter justifying her decision to move those counties to extreme risk, cited computer modeling showing that that move “could save roughly 180 lives.” Yet four days later, based on the margin of 0.1% in hospitalization rates, the governor decided those counties — including Multnomah, the state’s most populous — could return to high risk.

It beggars belief that all those lives would still be in danger if the statewide hospitalization rate increase were 15%, but that the danger disappeared when it dipped to 14.9%. Nor is it logical to think that those 180 people would be spared if 15 counties remained at extreme risk Wednesday and Thursday, but that the threat would pass as soon as Friday arrives. This sort of silly adherence to a rigid schedule — risk level changes must always take effect on Fridays, apparently — erodes the governor’s credibility, and extends the punishment to business owners and local economies.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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