Leaders of three Portland-area counties may no longer see hiring a new squadron of contact tracers as a prerequisite for reopening. Instead, they believe state officials will merely require them to demonstrate they can increase staffing in the event COVID-19 cases spike.

That was one takeaway from a Zoom conversation among county chairs hosted by the Portland Business Alliance on May 15. The Portland Tribune first reported on the conversation.

The three officials—Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington and Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard—agreed that one of the chief barriers to reopening the Portland area is hiring enough "contact tracers": health workers who call people who were in close contact with a contagious person and warn them to stay at home for two weeks.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's criteria for reopening counties would require Multnomah County to hire 122 contact tracers, Washington County to employ 90, and Clackamas County to hire 63. That's far more than the counties' current staffing.

But Bernard said state officials had assured him that Clackamas County merely needed to show it could reach those staffing levels—not show it had hired all the contact tracers.

"Thankfully, the governor let us know that we didn't have to put all these people on staff," he said. "But we can call on them. They need to be trained and ready to go."

Portland-area leaders have good reason to expect that's the standard: The two most populous Oregon counties allowed to reopen May 15, Deschutes and Lane, had hired fewer than half the tracers state officials said were a baseline.

Records first reported by The Oregonian and reviewed by WW show that Deschutes County, which the state said was required to hire 30 contact tracers, has just six. Lane County, which was supposed to hire 56 contact tracers, told state officials in writing it had "a pool of other staff and volunteers to bring capacity up to 20."

In both cases, state officials approved the counties' applications anyway.

State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger tells WW his office made its decisions by evaluating the whole of each county's capacity for tracking and tracing outbreaks, not just by looking at one criterion.

"All 31 counties approved for opening met the metric," Sidelinger said. "Counties stated how many contact traces they had onboard, how many were available, and their plans for bringing on additional tracers. They discussed the work they'd done to meet the needs of diverse groups in their community."

Clackamas County could submit its application to enter the first phase of reopening as early as May 22.