Brown targets Feb. 15th return to class; districts to make final decision

By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday directed state health and education leaders to launch several new policies in the coming weeks hoping to get Oregon’s elementary school students back in class by the middle of February.

Among the requests is making the state’s current health metrics for a return to class “advisory” rather than “mandatory” beginning January 1st.

“Moving forward, the decision to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school,” Brown wrote in her letter to Oregon Education Director Colt Gill and Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen.

Most Oregon students have been out of the classroom since early March when the COVID pandemic started to take hold across the United States.

Since then, school districts have grappled with distance learning efforts with varying success while parents juggled schedules and students missed out on important face-to-face interactions with teachers and friends.

“Moving forward, the decision to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school.”
Gov. Kate Brown

The state dangled a carrot in front of parents this fall by releasing more lenient health metrics, but cases in Deschutes County spiked right after the announcement. 

The governor now wants Oregon school districts and counties to have the flexibility to reopen schools based on the COVID situation in their own backyard.

“In addition to schools continuing to adhere to required health and safety protocols and working in close consultation with their local public health authority in understanding and considering the metrics, teachers, school staff, parents and students should be engaged in this decision-making process to allow schools to make the best choice for their community and their students,” she said.

“Today’s announcement from Governor Brown will not help return students safely to Oregon’s classrooms – it will simply continue what has already been months of confusion and uncertainty for Oregon’s students and educators.”
– Oregon Education Association President John Larson

Redmond School District Superintendent Dr. Charan Cline welcomed Brown’s announcement.

“The Redmond School District is eager to have kids back in school as soon as it is safe to do so, and we know that studies are showing transmission of COVID-19 is rare in schools,” he said. “With Governor Brown’s revision of the public health metrics to advisory instead of mandatory, we now have the ability to start a path toward reopening our schools.”

And in a letter to parents late Wednesday, Bend-La Pine Interim Superintendent Lora Nordquist said they’ve been planning for in-person instruction for months.

“I started connecting with district and association leaders this afternoon and will continue to expand the conversation to others over the break, as we determine specific dates for our phased-in return, based on this new information,” she said.

But the state’s teacher’s union was less than thrilled with the timing of Brown’s announcement during the holidays, saying it will “only result in an increasingly disparate patchwork of return plans throughout the state’s public education system.”

President John Larson said 70,000 educators and the families of 580,000 students “now must spend the holidays trying to understand what these changes mean for their lives and livelihoods.”

“Today’s announcement from Governor Brown will not help return students safely to Oregon’s classrooms – it will simply continue what has already been months of confusion and uncertainty for Oregon’s students and educators,” he said.

Brown said the nearly $140 million in state and federal resources dedicated to school reopening “put this goal within reach for school districts if communities continue to work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 over the next several weeks.”

She shared some good news on Tuesday, sharing that the post-Thanksgiving spike many had feared did not materialize.

Local cases, although higher than they have been since the pandemic began, are once again starting to decline.

In a statement, Brown said both the Legislature and Congress have dedicated new resources for safe school reopenings in 2021, including an additional $50 million approved during Monday’s special session to support schools in the transition to in-person instruction.

In addition, the legislature also passed legislation during the special session that protects schools from COVID-related lawsuits.

“As 2021 approaches and we look to the remaining school year just over the horizon, it is clear that the greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” Brown said. “Our students’ learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us.”

On Wednesday Brown said Oregon educators and child care providers would be prioritized in the next wave of COVID vaccines.

In her letter to the ODE and OHA, she directed the agencies to work with schools to “provide on-site, rapid testing as a safeguard to quickly address symptomatic individuals and those with potential exposure to COVID-19.”

Brown pointed to Washington state where “advisory metrics” have allowed more schools to reopen.

“As our neighbors to the north have demonstrated, this does not mean schools can resume in-person instruction without regard for COVID-19 spread in the community, but instead should carefully consider the metrics in their local context, the needs of students and families, and readiness to implement health and safety protocols,” she said. “As we move into a new year, we must all rise to the challenges that COVID-19 presents and prioritizing our children is most urgent.”

You can read Brown’s full letter to the ODE and OHA below.

12.23.20_Schools Letter_final

OHA reports 21 more COVID deaths; 1,283 new cases reported

COVID-19 has claimed 21 more lives in Oregon, raising the state’s death toll to 1,283, the Oregon Health Authority reported Thursday.

The OHA reported 1,339 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19, bringing the state total to 98,936.

The new cases reported Thursday are in the following counties: Baker (2), Benton (20), Clackamas (173), Clatsop (3), Columbia (18), Coos (5), Crook (4), Curry (1), Deschutes (48), Douglas (12), Gilliam (3), Hood River (23), Jackson (82), Jefferson (10), Josephine (24), Klamath (19), Lane (74), Lincoln (8), Linn (60), Malheur (13), Marion (148), Morrow (5), Multnomah (250), Polk (20), Tillamook (12), Umatilla (34), Union (13), Wasco (9), Washington (218), Wheeler (1) and Yamhill (27).

Deschutes County has reported 3,389 cases since the pandemic began; 18 people have died.

The county had 2,245 active cases as of Wednesday, the latest data available – that’s one in 88 residents; 1,079 patients have recovered.

Crook County has reported 368 total cases and six deaths.

Jefferson County has reported 1,204 total cases and 12 deaths.

St. Charles on Thursday reported it had 50 COVID patients; four are in the ICU and two are on a ventilator.

“While having a low number of COVID-19 patients in the ICU may seem like it’s not too big of a deal, it is important to remember that many patients need ICU care for other reasons like heart attacks, strokes or car accidents,” according to St. Charles.

The hospital system has 30 ICU beds; 24 in Bend and six in Redmond.

The ICU was full as of Tuesday afternoon, according to St. Charles officials.

The number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 across Oregon is 551, which is three fewer than Wednesday. There are 113 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds, which is unchanged from Wednesday.

The total number of patients in hospital beds may fluctuate between report times.

The numbers do not reflect admissions per day, nor the length of hospital stay. Staffing limitations are not captured in this data and may further limit bed capacity.

More information about hospital capacity can be found here.

First shipment of COVID-19 vaccine arrives at St. Charles in Bend

With lots of smiles and applause, St. Charles in Bend received its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday morning.

A FedEx truck with only one piece of cargo – a single, temperature-controlled box of 975 does – arrived just before 10:30 a.m., the hospital said in a release.

“This is a historic moment,” said Joe Sluka, president and CEO of St. Charles Heath System. “In the same year a global pandemic landed in the United States, the scientific community delivered a vaccine. It’s a remarkable achievement that gives us hope as we continue to battle this virus and try to return our world to some version of normal.”

Debra Carlson, an inventory coordinator for the hospital’s inpatient pharmacy, donned safety goggles and a special pair of thick gloves while taking the box and placing them in an ultra-cold temperature freezer capable of storing them at -70 degrees C.

“The eagle has landed,” she said into her phone upon taking delivery, calling it “such a symbol of hope and next step forward for us.”

In a news conference later Thursday, Chief Pharmacy Officer Michael Powell said everyone in the pharmacy stopped what they were doing to watch the process unfold and erupted in applause.

He called it “the beginning of the end of working through this pandemic.” 

Dr. Cynthia Maree, who is overseeing the vaccine at the hospital, said the excitement Thursday was a little like Christmas morning.

The vaccines will remain in the freezer until Monday morning when the pharmacy team will begin dethawing and diluting individual doses in preparation for administering them to the first group of caregivers at noon.

It is expected all 975 doses will be dispersed by the end of Wednesday, the hospital said.

Maree reiterated Thursday that while many of the hospital’s caregivers and staff are clamoring to be at the front of the line for the vaccine, others still aren’t sure and want more information.

The goal over the next few weeks is to educate everyone on the vaccine’s safety and benefits, Maree said.

In the meantime, St. Charles caregivers who are eligible for vaccination are receiving notifications via text and email with information about when they are scheduled to receive their first dose.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is administered in two doses 21 days apart, so only after receiving a second dose three weeks out will they be considered fully vaccinated.

The vaccine arrives on a day when St. Charles Bend has 50 inpatients with COVID-19, four of whom are in the ICU and two of whom are on a ventilator.

The health system continues to postpone some elective surgeries to free up the staff and beds needed to care for the highest-need patients.

“This year has been a difficult year for all of us, and the fight is not over yet,” said Dr. Jeff Absalon, St. Charles’ chief physician executive. “The stress on our health system continues to be very real. On Tuesday, every one of our ICU beds were full. While today is certainly one to be celebrated, we must acknowledge the difficult road still ahead of us and continue to be vigilant in halting the spread of the virus.”

He said he expects local numbers to continue to rise as post-Thanksgiving cases come to light.

 

 

St. Charles to get first shipment of 975 COVID vaccines Thursday

By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

St. Charles will get its first shipment of the Pfizer COVID vaccine on Thursday and will begin administering it to staff next week.

The first shipment includes 975 doses and is earmarked for health care workers, St. Charles officials said in a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.

Starting Monday, the vaccine to be given to caregivers with the most potential for direct exposure. They’ll need a second dose in 21 days.

Officials say the goal is to have vaccinations available for all caregivers who want it within two months.

Dr. Cynthia Maree is leading the vaccination efforts at St. Charles and said an internal survey of its 4,500 staff members showed about half “definitely” planned to get the vaccine; some are still unsure.

Among those, more than 90% of the 800-member medical staff (doctors, nurse practitioners, etc.) indicated they planned to get the vaccine.

Maree said the hospital is trying to educate those on the fence, by assuring them the vaccine isn’t a new technology and that it’s very safe, despite the fast track to approval.

She said between 10-15% of the staff are not interested in the vaccine – and the hospital cannot require anyone to get it.

“We’re going to try to vaccinate as many people as we can,” Maree said. “Then we can begin to look at the policies.”

All of the vaccines will be administered at St. Charles in Bend, Marlee said, due to logistical and safety concerns.

Additional shipments heading this way in the coming weeks will be distributed to long-term care facility residents and emergency responders.

St. Charles officials say they don’t expect the vaccine to be available to the general public until late spring or early summer 2021.

In an email to the public earlier Tuesday morning, President and CEO Joe Sluka said information about the vaccine and plans for distribution “is evolving rapidly,” but gave some answers for common questions.

  • St. Charles is set to receive its first shipment of 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 17
  • The Oregon Health Authority has outlined a phased approach to vaccination, meaning health care workers, long-term care facility residents and emergency responders will be first on the list
  • The state is working with commercial pharmacies to distribute the vaccine to long-term care facilities, which means St. Charles is not responsible for this portion of the vaccine distribution
  • We are working on plans to administer the vaccine to St. Charles caregivers based on the Oregon Health Authority’s guidance for prioritization – this means those staff members who are critical for maintaining hospital capacity to serve the greatest number of patients and who have the most direct exposure to COVID-19 will be given the vaccine first
  • St. Charles caregivers are not required to take the vaccine, but we are encouraging them to do so
  • All of our staff will be required to continue masking and distancing until we achieve a high rate of vaccination throughout the general public
  • We do not yet know when we will have enough vaccine supply in Central Oregon to begin vaccinating high-risk patients, but anticipate it could be several months

“The approval of the Pfizer vaccine – and the likely approval of the Moderna vaccine this week – is such an exciting step in our fight against COVID-19 and our quest to return to a more normal way of life,” Sluka said. “But, we are not out of the woods yet. We continue to see high daily positive case counts in our three counties and our numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients also remains high.”

On Tuesday the hospital reported 32 COVID patients; four are in the ICU and three are on a ventilator.

Chief Physician Executive Jeff Absalon said as of Tuesday afternoon, the hospital’s ICU was full.

OHA reports 30 new COVID deaths; weekly cases, hospitalizations set records

COVID-19 has claimed 30 more lives in Oregon, raising the state’s death toll to 1,110 the Oregon Health Authority reported Wednesday.

The OHA reported 1,243 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19, bringing the state total to 88,287.

The new cases are in the following counties: Baker (3), Benton (11), Clackamas (109), Clatsop (6), Columbia (7), Coos (18), Crook (5), Curry (1), Deschutes (51), Douglas (27), Grant (4), Hood River (16), Jackson (54), Jefferson (22), Josephine (16), Klamath (36), Lake (3), Lane (85), Lincoln (14), Linn (33), Malheur (22), Marion (192), Morrow (3), Multnomah (208), Polk (26), Tillamook (5), Umatilla (30), Union (7), Wasco (9), Washington (163), Yamhill (57).

According to the OHA, 95% of the new and presumptive cases reported are later confirmed COVID positive.

Deschutes County has reported 2,969 cases and 15 deaths; 997 patients have recovered.

Crook County has reported 309 cases and six deaths.

Jefferson County has reported 1,035 cases and 11 deaths.

St. Charles reported Wednesday it had 39 COVID patients; seven are in the ICU and five are on a ventilator.

“While having a low number of COVID-19 patients in the ICU may seem like it’s not too big of a deal, it is important to remember that many patients need ICU care for other reasons like heart attacks, strokes or car accidents,” according to St. Charles.

The hospital system has 30 ICU beds; 24 in Bend and six in Redmond.

COVID-19 hospitalizations

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients across Oregon is 580, that’s 27 more than Tuesday.

There are 132 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds, five more than Tuesday.

The total number of patients in hospital beds may fluctuate between report times.

The numbers do not reflect admissions per day, nor the length of hospital stay.

Staffing limitations are not captured in this data and may further limit bed capacity.

Weekly cases, hospitalizations set new pandemic highs

OHA’s COVID-19 weekly report released Wednesday, set weekly highs for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations for the third consecutive week.

OHA reported 10,355 new daily cases during the week of Monday, Nov. 30 through Sunday, Dec. 6, a 14% increase over the previous week and the seventh consecutive record high weekly case count.

Hospitalizations associated with COVID-19 increased to 494, a 24% increase and an average of 70 per day.

There were 133 reported COVID-19 reported deaths, up from 86 the previous week and an average of 19 per day – the highest since the pandemic began.

People aged 20 to 49 have accounted for 55% of the cases, while people 70 and older have accounted for 76%of the deaths.

Finally, During the week of Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, the number of COVID-19 tests administered to Oregonians increased significantly to 170,964. The percentage of positive tests was 8.1%.

▶️ COVID hits Crook Co. teachers; students return to online learning

By BROOKE SNAVELY
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

Rising COVID case counts in Crook County are forcing schools there to shift to comprehensive distance learning effective next week.

All Crook County K-12 classes are shifting to distancing learning effective Dec. 14th.

That’s due to the number of teachers who are either confirmed with COVID cases or have been exposed and must quarantine.

There aren’t enough substitute teachers available to continue managing the classrooms.

“Our teachers are getting sick. Our teachers are coming down with COVID,” said Dr. Sarah Johnson, Crook County Schools superintendent. “Some people don’t get a big impact from it, but some people are getting very sick from it.

Crook County has experienced a surge of 98 new COVID cases in the past two weeks.

The number needs to be below 45 on a bi-weekly basis to allow students to return to a blend of in-person and online instruction.

Redmond has also suspended its limited in-person instruction due to rising cases in Deschutes County. 

In Crook County, the district’s Facebook page exploded with questions and comments about the decision to switch to online learning for all grades.

One parent I spoke with, who has two children in the school system, says she understands and appreciates the difficult situation and decisions district officials are making.

“We are so lucky to have this district fight to stay in school but their transparency with parents and kids…there are no words for the lengths that they go to keep us informed,” said Renee Tooley of Prineville.

“I don’t think all hope is gone,” Superintendent Johnson said. “I think if people are really diligent, we could fall from the 98 we had this last two weeks. We could cut that down to 45 I believe and maintain that for a couple of weeks but it’s going to take some real commitment by people in the district.”

School district officials say they hope case rates come down during the Christmas break and that they are able to reopen to in-person learning on January 4 if the metrics allow.

Johnson said the district will host an online fireside chat on December 29th to update parents and students about the plan of action for when classes resume in January.

▶️ Despite fewer cases, county COVID metrics keeping La Pine-area schools closed

By BROOKE SNAVELY
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

Why are schools in Sunriver and La Pine closed when COVID infection rates in those communities are a fraction of what the county is dealing with?

John Ciolero wants to know why schools in Sunriver and La Pine are closed when these areas represent about 5% of COVID cases in Deschutes County.

“Why are we jeopardizing our kids and their future with a shut down to the schools?,” Ciolera asked. “We are 30 miles away from Bend and the metrics are entirely different here and have been since the onset of this crisis. Why are we staying closed?”

That’s a great question for the governor, says interim Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Lora Nordquist.

“As a district we don’t have any flexibility to open some of our schools and not open others,” Nordquist said. “The metrics established by the state put all of Deschutes County in one bucket, so whether you live in La Pine or Sisters or downtown Bend, we have the same metrics we have to abide by and we don’t have flexibility to open our schools right now.”

According to the Deschutes County Health Department, 7.1% of people taking COVID tests test positive.

The rate of infection is even worse per 100,000 residents, placing local schools far into the red zone that requires comprehensive distance learning to keep students and teachers safe.

However, the schools–including La Pine and Sunriver–are providing some limited in-person instruction to about 10 percent of their students.

“That allows us to bring in small groups of students, cohorts no larger than 20. They can’t be there longer than 2 hours at a time,” Nordquist said. “We identify students who are in the most need academically or socially or maybe really need that adult support to help do work or have someone to talk to.”

Ciorelo says La Pine area students are suffering due to the school closures.

“They’ve always suffered by being in a more rural environment. To jeopardize them even further by shutting down our schools when it’s not warranted by the numbers, seems unfair.”

So why, then, are school buses still rolling?

“If you see a bus with a few students on it, they are being delivered to a school from that limited in-person instruction. We are providing transportation for that,” Nordquist said.

School buses that appear empty, except for the driver, are probably delivering meals, another service schools continue providing.

Deschutes Co. DA: No mask-related charges following ‘We Will Not Comply’ rally

Deschutes County DA John Hummel announced Tuesday he won’t file any charges against a group of non-mask-wearers involved in a “We Will Not Comply” rally last month.

More than 100 people gathered in downtown Bend Nov. 21 to protest the governor’s mask mandate and two-week freeze that closed some Oregon businesses and reduced capacity at others while asking families to limit gathering sizes for Thanksgiving in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Hummel said four people called the police to report the group, saying they weren’t wearing masks, apparently in violation of the governor’s order.

Tommy Szymanski, the event organizer, told police he thought the mask mandate was unconstitutional and said it was an individual choice whether to wear the mask, Hummel said.

Police didn’t issue any citations at the event but did refer the matter to Hummel’s office.

Hummel said the event organizer was incorrect in saying the mask mandate was unconstitutional.

But enforcing the mandate when a group “gathers to exercise a constitutional right (in this case, to assemble to redress their government), it would create a conflict between the lawful mask law and the constitutional right that is being exercised.”

“As long as people who gather to exercise a constitutional right are not violent or destructive when doing so, I generally defer to protecting their constitutional rights over the enforcement of any statutory violations they may commit while exercising their rights,” he said in a statement. “My philosophy is content-neutral, meaning, it applies to people who gather for “liberal” causes and to people who gather for “conservative” causes.”

Hummel’s statement concludes by encouraging everyone to wear masks and keep your distance from others “so we can save lives, save businesses and save parent’s sanity by getting kids back to school.”

▶️ Hundreds of surgeries delayed as COVID hospitalizations spike at St. Charles

By STEELE HAUGEN
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

COVID-19 cases keep rising in Deschutes County and St. Charles hospital in Bend has limited beds.

“We are filling up and we are in the process of reducing surgeries in an effort to create capacity to take care of patients that are sick,” said St. Charles Chief Physician Executive, Dr. Jeff Absalon.

There are 29 patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19. 

It’s the highest number they’ve had so far, roughly twice as many as the previous week.

“We’ve seen the numbers in our area increase significantly in the last several weeks,” Absalon said. “It takes a few weeks after we see the community numbers go up for us to see the numbers go up in the hospital and that is exactly what has happened here.”

Deschutes County last week reported 459 new COVID cases – nearly 200 more than the week before.

Lisa Goodman, a spokeswoman for St. Charles said 20 of the hospital’s 30 ICU beds were full.

And across the region’s four hospital campuses, 82% of the beds were occupied as of Monday.

Hundreds of elective surgeries are being delayed, that’s 25 to 40% of all surgeries performed at the hospital.

“Elective surgeries include things such as heart surgery, including such things as cancer surgery. So there are a lot of very important surgeries included in that bucket,” Absalon said.

He adds, everyone is feeling the pressure and stress on the health system at this time.

“We just don’t know if this is the peak or not,” he said. “What we do know is, the measures that have been used previously are effective. If people wear a mask, if they keep their physical distance, if they stay home when they are ill if they wash their hands. We know we can bend the curve and that is exactly what needs to happen.”

Absalon also added, there is a risk the hospital reaches capacity, given the variety of other patients typically admitted this time of year.

Bend’s Old Mill to offer North Pole Express mail service to Santa this year

Kids, start working on those letters to Santa because the big guy’s in-person availability is going to be a little limited this year.

COVID restrictions mean SantaLand won’t happen as usual, but the Old Mill District in Bend has announced it will set up two “North Pole Express” mailboxes this year for kids to quickly get their letters up north.

The mailboxes can be found at the north and south entrances of the Old Mill.

And while you won’t be allowed to sit on his lap this year, Santa will make a few appearances on the back of a decorated truck to swing by and pick up letters on Fridays and Saturdays in December.

Santa will come to pick up the letters the first three Fridays and Saturdays in December – Dec. 4-5, Dec. 11-12, and Dec. 18-19 – at 1 p.m. each day.

He promises to respond to every letter with a return address (but he can’t promise you’ll get every gift on your list!)

Due to COVID restrictions, Santa won’t be making his traditional Black Friday helicopter entrance in Bend.

The annual Tree of Joy will see some changes this holiday season as well.

A partnership between the Salvation Army, the four Rotary Clubs of Bend and the Old Mill District, the Tree of Joy ensures that every child in Central Oregon experiences the joy of Christmas.

Details for the 2020 Tree of Joy are still being ironed out – there will not be a physical tree that participants select tags from this year – but generous Central Oregonians will be able to view desired or needed gifts, make those purchases, and drop those items off at the Salvation Army’s offices at 541 NE Dekalb near Bend High School.

Nearly 1,000 individuals a year benefit from the kindness and generosity of the Tree of Joy program, which dates back to 1984.

Additionally, you can celebrate Chanukah with the annual menorah lighting in the Old Mill District. The lighting ceremony will be held in the westside parking lot across the river from the shops in the Old Mill District, near the Hampton Inn, where people will be able to view the menorah from their cars at a safe social distance.

 

 

Presented by the Chabad of Central Oregon, this year’s ceremony will be similar to a drive-in movie, with families taking in the festivities from inside their vehicles. The ceremony is expected to start at 4:30 p.m.

All faiths and denominations are welcome

More details coming.