Update: After the meeting on Friday, three hours after this article was released online at TheSiuslawNews.com, Schick contacted the Siuslaw News and stated that planning was going in the right direction. City of Florence Public Information Officer Megan Messmer will be the official spokesperson regarding WLEOG’s response to COVID-19.
March 20, 2020 — “We are not prepared” for a novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, Western Lane Ambulance District (WLAD) and Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SVFR) Chief Michael Schick said on Thursday.
“I think we’ve been waiting for something to happen, and then start preparations. I think we are slowly getting things geared up, but right now if there was to be a massive outbreak in Florence, I’m not sure how we would handle it. We’re starting the meetings, but it takes time to get these rolling. I think in general, no — I don’t feel that we’re prepared at all.”
The information comes after the Siuslaw News began receiving reports that local governmental agencies have lacked organization and leadership since COVID-19 was first diagnosed in Oregon. While some agencies, such as Siuslaw School District, have taken strong steps to instituting plans to protect the community and provide services, there still remain more questions than actual actions taken.
The consequences of not being prepared could be severe, with Schick estimating a fatality rate between 2 and 6 percent in the coming weeks if actions aren’t taken immediately. With an estimated 18,000 people in the Siuslaw region, that could be anywhere between a couple hundred people to more than 1,000.
However, Schick also stressed that people should not panic; community members within the region are ready and willing to help in a concerted effort against COVID-19.
“I don’t think it’s too late, but we’re running out of time very quickly,” he said, adding that community leaders have been “asking the right questions, the ‘What if’s” over the last few weeks.
From the view of SVFR and WLAD, these questions include: “What do we do if half of our ambulance employees are infected? Even if we can utilize firefighters and city personnel to drive ambulances, where do we take them if the hospital overwhelmed? Do we start setting up triage centers at the schools?”
There are other unanswered questions, such as meeting the needs of citizens who are being asked to stay at home.
“Do we need a call-in center for people?” Schick asked. “We just don’t have the answers yet. We have a lot of people that want to help, so I think over the next few weeks that’s going to start ramping up here for this area — and then the surrounding areas as well.”
Two weeks ago, Schick organized a weekly meeting between local governmental agencies, including the City of Florence, PeaceHealth Peace Harbor and the Siuslaw and Mapleton school districts. Before that meeting, “We’d all been planning on our own,” Schick said.
The Siuslaw School District, for example, had been planning for the past two months for an outbreak, including stocking up on fuel and creating plans to get food out to the community. But as School Board President Guy Rosinbaum said, there was little organization with the rest of the community.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of coordinated effort in making sure these agencies are talking to one another at the moment, besides us,” Rosinbaum said during a special school board meeting on Wednesday, March 18.
While the district’s preparations have been used as an example for other districts across the state, the mandate of the school can only carry them so far.
“We’re trying to make them understand we’re here to support them and their children while they keep this community functional, as well as whatever else we can do to help with that,” Rosinbaum said.
While the school district has staff ready to volunteer in multiple capacities, they are still limited in what they can and cannot do.
Other agencies have made progress as well. Lane County has declared a state of emergency to allow funding, and the City of Florence will most likely follow suit in a special meeting Monday, March 23, at Florence City Hall. The Siuslaw Library District has been disseminating COVID-19 fact sheets to the public and has offered its services as researchers to any organization in the community.
“The library has done a great job of getting information on their website,” Schick said. “The food banks and Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS) are great. Working with the police department and dispatch has been great too.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Siuslaw School Board Vice President John Barnett.
“Overall, our community in general has been outstanding through this,” he said on Wednesday. “Our leadership roles [referring to Florence Police Chief Tom Turner, Peace Harbor COO Jason Hawkins and Siuslaw School District Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak] have been nothing short of amazing.”
Residents have begun creating groups to help in various capacities, and businesses have stepped up to feed the community.
Still, the general consensus — and largest hurdle — has been an overall lack of organization and cohesive leadership.
“I think we do need to get some leadership going,” Schick said.
That is something he believes will be figured out as soon as Friday, March 20, as the city, fire and school districts meet together.
“One of the topics is to look at what the incident command structure looks like,” Schick said. “Is there going to be an incident commander? Is this going to be staffing eight hours a day, 24 hours a day? Who’s going to handle public information officer duties? We absolutely need to get these answers out to the public.”
Soon after the meeting, the group, along with other organizations in the community, need to solidify and enact plans immediately, Schick said.
Two organizations that would have normally acted as leadership in an emergency is Lane County and the Western Lane Emergency Operations Group (WLEOG), but both of those organizations have their limitations.
Over the past number of years, WLEOG had a reputation for being prepared, often quoting the United State Coast Guard motto of “Semper Paratus” — the definition of always prepared. But the detailed plans that WLEOG created were for natural disasters such as tsunamis, winter storms and earthquakes. Ultimately, the plans were designed around an event that would leave other towns intact.
“If you look at a tsunami, is that going to impact Eugene? Probably not. And so, we can rely on Eugene,” Schick explained. “With the coronavirus, it’s unique in that not only will it impact Florence, but it’s impacting the entire world.”
Areas thought to be spared from natural disasters that could have helped the Siuslaw region are now under the same threat and are dealing with the same issues.
“In our emergency operations plan, we don’t have a chapter on an infectious disease outbreak,” Schick said. “I would say most communities didn’t have that because it was so rare for something like that to happen.”
The region could lean on Lane County for help, but that also has its limitations. While he praised the work of the county, Schick said their resources will only go so far.
“I’m pretty impressed with what the county is doing,” he said, pointing out that the public health officials with the county have been instrumental in getting personal protective equipment (PPE) for WLAD and SVFR.
“But I don’t know how much longer we can rely on their help,” he said. “At some point, the country is going to get overwhelmed. Eugene-Springfield is just going to absorb all their resources, so I think we need to be prepared. We’re going to have to provide for our citizens.”
Ultimately, the Siuslaw region will be on its own and will have to rely on its own resources to pull through — and the time in preparing for that inevitability is running short.
While Jim McGovern, MD, PeaceHealth Oregon Network Vice President of Medical Affairs told the Siuslaw News last week that COVID-19 is “likely” in the Florence community, Schick pointed out that it is most likely limited at this moment.
“Right now, you walk around town, everybody’s feeling good, it hasn’t hit us yet,” said Schick. “If you watch the infections in the state of Oregon, it’s slowly moving down the I-5 corridor, which you'd expect.”
However, with spring break approaching, COVID-19 could reach the region in days. A popular vacation destination, the Siuslaw region could see visitors coming from around the West Coast looking to escape the stress of the pandemic, as has been seen on Florida beaches in the past week. And as tourists arrive, so too could more cases of COVID-19.
“I’m hoping that spring break is very quiet here,” Schick said. “I know that hits our businesses pretty hard, but I think they’re already hit hard. I think the feds and state are working to help ease that burden on our businesses, but I’m hoping for a very quiet spring break, and the beaches are empty. But that remains to be seen.”
If COVID-19 were to appear aggressively in the region without preparations and precautions, the possibility of a higher fatality rate could increase exponentially.
“Worst case scenario, the fatality rate could be anywhere from a couple percent to five or six percent,” Schick said.
Before joining the fire service, Schick was a research scientist working on synthetic blood. He completed his thesis on biological warfare situations in small communities. When asked what a death rate in the region would look like, he said the possibilities varied on response.
The Siuslaw Vision estimates the Siuslaw Region to have 18,000 residents. A 6-percent death rate could claim the lives of 1,080 people. In a worst-case scenario, that would mean at least 540 dead in Florence (pop. 8,947), 82 dead in Dunes City (pop. 1,375), 58 dead in Mapleton (pop. 963), and hundreds more in other areas, such as Collard Lake, Swisshome and Deadwood.
Those numbers are what Rosinbaum referred to as a “surrealistic nightmare” that keeps him awake at night.
“There’s no herd immunity,” he said. “The only way to get there is either by a vaccination for the disease, which we don’t have, or getting the disease itself — which our most vulnerable in town can’t do. It’s not an option.”
To prevent the highest number of deaths, the entire Siuslaw community must practice precautions such as “social distancing, which is a fantastic idea,” Schick said. “Staying six feet apart or more.”
Schick also recommended cancelling all in-person meetings and, instead, relying on teleconferencing.
“And washing your hands constantly,” he added. “Disinfect doorknobs. If you’re sick, stay at home. Throw away Kleenexes right away, cough into your elbow. Make sure that you’re not exposing people.”
And be aware that the majority of COVID-19 spread in other countries has come through people that did not know they carried the coronavirus — because they were not exhibiting systems.
“One of the problems with the coronavirus is, you may be infectious for a little while before symptoms start up,” Schick said.
Even with all that to think about, he also cautioned the community against panic and hoarding.
“Stop hoarding toilet paper,” he said first. “I don’t think you need to wear a mask unless you have symptoms, I would leave those to the first responders because we’re running out of masks. We’re running out of supplies.”
Social distancing then becomes a responsibility for every Siuslaw resident, regardless of age, as City of Florence Mayor Joe Henry stated in a letter to the community earlier this week:
“We urge our community members to adhere to the social distancing measures being implemented by the State of Oregon and the Centers of Disease Control. These measures mean we may need to postpone our important events, such as weddings, celebrations of life and other events of gathering. It is our shared responsibility to protect each other and our most vulnerable populations. I understand that making these hard decisions is difficult and often disappointing. If we do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19, those events will be more meaningful.”
Henry also cautioned residents from discrimination.
“We cannot combat COVID-19 if we turn on each other or stigmatize people who test positive and become ill,” he wrote. “That only puts sick people and the broader community at-risk because it discourages people from getting tested, getting care and staying home. We are all afraid of the unknown and how this virus will end up impacting our lives. It is our job to remain kind and supportive during these uncertain times.”
For social distancing and self-quarantine to work, the community needs to have an organized response to help in the event of an order to shelter in-place.
“If we’re going to be sheltering in place, which I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s coming down here really shortly … how do you meet the basic needs of your citizens if they’re staying at home? How can they contact us or the proper people in the community so we can make sure they get help?” Schick asked. “I think those are some of the other questions we need to find answers to.”
And after the sheltering ends, what then?
“Are they going to have to stay in their home for months and months?” Schick asked. “Is it just a couple weeks? When they come out, do you then have new exposures? Right now, nobody knows.”
But to ensure that those who do stay in place can survive, the community needs to start taking concrete actions now.
“I think we’re not prepared as we should be,” Schick said. “I was hoping we had more time to do that, but I think we’re absolutely starting along that path. I think we have to ramp up very quickly.”
Ultimately, community members will have to remain calm, ready and determined to work together. This will include all organizations and volunteer groups, from city governments to WLAD, SVFR, the school district, the library district, nonprofits such as Siuslaw Outreach Services, Helping Hands and local food shares.
“I’m so impressed with this community and how they’re willing to help each other,” Schick said. “We need to take advantage of that and get everybody working together. It’s not a lack of people wanting to help, which is a good thing. It’s just coordinating those efforts. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to get things going in the right direction really quick.”