Nothing has shaped Governor Kate Brown’s reputation and legacy more than her administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under Brown, schools and businesses in Oregon faced prolonged restrictions; teachers were vaccinated in priority over seniors; and Oregon was among the last states in the country to lift an indoor mask mandate. Yet the state also had a significantly lower death rate than other states. Through it all, the decisions, strategy and execution of the Brown administration have been praised, decried and questioned.
For the upcoming primary, the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board sent out endorsement questionnaires to Democratic and Republican candidates seeking to succeed Brown. (Former state senator Betsy Johnson, who is running as an unaffiliated candidate and will not contest a primary, did not receive a questionnaire.) We asked them to share in 200 words or less what stood out about Oregon’s COVID response and how they would govern as the pandemic continues its uncertain path. Below are responses from eight of the contestants, listed in alphabetical order.
What principles will guide you as you navigate Oregon through whatever comes next in the COVID-19 pandemic? What has Oregon had right or wrong (e.g. school closures, mask mandates, vaccine priority) in the fight against COVID?
Julian Bell, Democrat: Both Kate Brown and the State of Oregon have done an excellent job of meeting the challenges of COVID-19, and I am grateful to state agencies and their staff for their work under very difficult circumstances. I treated many COVID-19 patients in the hospital. It was a weird time. Undoubtedly, vaccines, the use of masks, and state recommendations have saved people’s lives. While the governor is responsible for the health of the people of the state, they are also responsible for the economy. Even so, you might be able to limp an economy and then rebuild it, but you can’t bring back the dead. The principles that would guide me in the future, should we see another resurgence of the virus, would be the best epidemiology available.
Christine Drazan, Republican: I will lead with facts, not with fear. I will respect the people of Oregon and their right to determine the best approach for themselves and their families when it comes to responding to the virus and making personal medical decisions. I will engage in transparent and open dialogue with the people of Oregon about where we are, why their state government is responding in a certain way and rejecting authoritarian mandates.
Governor Brown made the wrong call when she went all out on vaccination mandates, on mask mandates and in her fear-based rhetoric, which further eroded public confidence in the response. the state that she did help. His administration was also too rigid, inconsistent in its response to the latest scientific findings, and sloppy and overly bureaucratic in rolling out tests and vaccines.
I will give Governor Brown credit for resisting the urge to list essential/non-essential businesses at the start of the pandemic, a decision taken by many other states, which would have shut down many vital industries and would have been disastrous for Oregon. At the time, I urged Governor Brown to reject this approach and believe that she had finally made the right decision.
Jessica Gomez, Republican: They say that with hindsight it’s 20/20. I no longer believe that statement to be true, as each person looks at the COVID pandemic through their own partisan lens. In the early stages of the pandemic, we lacked reliable information on routes of transmission, severity of illness and deaths. Oregon responded cautiously and appropriately. Over time, it was apparent that our leaders and state agencies were in trouble. The vaccine rollout in Oregon was not sufficiently planned and resourced, and vulnerable communities were not prioritized. Some feel they have been misled about the effectiveness of the vaccine, as it is more of a preventative treatment than a traditional vaccine. The vaccine has been shown to reduce the severity of infection, but often fails to prevent future infection or transmission.
As Governor, whether for COVID or other challenges, I will always be mindful of individual liberty, transparency, and government accountability. I would not have extended business or school closures beyond what was absolutely necessary. For our state to have a united front against the next challenge, it will be imperative to avoid politicization and work hard to build trust between the governor’s office, state agencies, and the people of Oregon.
Tina Kotek, Democrat: There are plenty of Oregonians walking around today, alive and well, because Oregonians followed the science, wore a mask, and got vaccinated. There was no playbook on how to respond to this crisis, no one had perfect information, and while many public health measures were not easy, we should be proud that the Oregon fared better than most countries.
But our state agencies have certainly failed in some areas – the failure to manage unemployment benefits at a time when so many Oregonians lost their jobs was unacceptable.
We are going to have to manage life with this virus for some time to come. So we need to come up with a plan to keep our communities safe and prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed. As governor, I will consult with experts, read data, be consistent and clear, especially as we face new variants and potential surges, and thoughtfully assess physical health, emotional well-being and economic impacts of each decision.
Bud Pierce, Republican: Oregon’s current leaders have spent money on endless ineffective ads with scare tactics and guilt-inducing messaging. Businesses have been threatened and fined if they try to stay open. Vaccine priority should have been given to those most at risk; the elderly and the chronically ill. Although we didn’t know everything at the start of the pandemic, I think we will soon determine that closing schools has done more harm to children and their families than keeping them open. Children were at very low risk of serious illness from the virus. Due to school and business closures, depression, suicide, learning difficulties and financial strain on families have increased. The administration’s obsession with wearing masks long after they were needed (punishing businesses and threatening individuals) has only led to unnecessary pushbacks that have only widened the gap between the government and its citizens.
Stan Pulliam, Republican: The central problem of the COVID response was that our elected officials made stopping the spread of the disease (at which we were no better than other states) the one and only priority. (Editor’s note: Oregon’s case rate is the second-lowest in the nation, according to numbers on file with The New York Times.)
In a society with so many moving parts, it is inconceivable that we have allowed our economy, our sanity, our small businesses, and the education and socialization of our children to be not only ignored, but willfully destroyed in the name of trying to stop the inevitable spread of a virus. It was a self-inflicted wound, and history will show how the response was far more damaging to society than the virus itself.
Tobias Read, Democrat: I will be guided by science in any decision we make in the future regarding the pandemic. I think following the science, especially early in the pandemic, helped make Oregon one of the least affected states in the country. However, I think we made a mistake by opening bars and restaurants before the children returned. As a parent of two public school students, I have seen firsthand the impact this has had. The mental health of many children suffered, and test scores and literacy rates dropped significantly. We’re going to have to spend years helping kids make up for lost learning and supporting our teachers with the resources they need to get out of this hole. Clearly there should have been a much higher priority on keeping schools open, with proper masking, testing and ventilation to keep everyone safe while continuing education and social and emotional development. of our children.
Furthermore, the state and legislature could have done a much better job of ensuring that agencies such as the Department of Employment and the State Housing Agency were equipped to handle the foreseeable increase in requests for help. We need to restore confidence that our government can manage important programs that Oregonians in need rely on.
Bob Tiernan, Republican: My decision-making process – balancing harm and benefit, ability to build skilled teams, use evidence-based approaches, listen to different ideas, review and explore the “unintended consequences” of every major decision and make adjustments necessary depending on the facts or circumstances currency.
Oregon should not have closed the schools. The harm he caused our children far outweighed the benefits. Government mandates, such as vaccination mandates, should only come into play in extreme situations, especially when they deprive Oregonians of some of their most basic rights.
-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board
Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.
Board members meet regularly to determine our institutional position on current issues. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can provide clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from news articles.