The White House Coronavirus Task Force has made specific recommendations to Gov. Kate Brown, along with other governors, for seven weeks on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beginning July 19, recommendations from the top public health officials in the country have included advice that Oregon leaders close the bars in Portland.
WW received the reports Aug. 6 from the governor's office after requesting the documents.
The State Reports, which began June 23, provide detailed looks at the number of cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive, and tailor recommendations based on conditions in specific counties. (Links to all seven State Reports for Oregon are below.)
On July 19, Multnomah County made the report's yellow zone list for the first time. Also in the yellow zone that week were Washington, Marion, Jefferson, Union, Hood River and Gilliam counties.
Advice for public health officials related to counties in the yellow zone included "limit gyms to 25% occupancy and close bars until percent positive rates are under 3%."
The recommendations for Multnomah County have remained consistent for three weeks, including in the most recent report Aug. 3.
The White House has kept them secret from the public, to the consternation of public health officials.
But the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit newsroom, first published a copy of the July 14 recommendations for all states last month. The New York Times obtained a copy of the July 26 reports. The Malheur Enterprise first reported on the recommendations for Malheur County on July 17.
Experts praised the concepts in the recommendations, when first obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, which reported, "Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he thought the information and recommendations were mostly good."
"This should be published and updated every day," Dr. Jha told the center.
But Gov. Brown disagrees with the recommendations, with her office pointing to flaws that it says have exacerbated the federal government's response.
"For weeks, the Trump administration has been issuing these cookie-cutter reports based on little or no review of existing regulations or conditions on the ground, while failing to pull together a national strategy for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and response," says Brown spokesman Charles Boyle.
"None of the recommendations in these weekly reports have been paired with the resources or the federal support to implement them," he adds. "For example, they call for universal testing of residents and staff at long-term care facilities without providing Oregon with the funds or testing capacity necessary to help us implement our plans to do so."
Boyle says the federal recommendations also don't take into account the health protections Brown has already ordered, such as requiring masks in most public spaces.
"In short, they appear to be copy-paste reports that vary little from week to week and offer little to us in terms of guiding state-level decisions," Boyle adds. "For that, we continue to look to the doctors, epidemiologists, and health experts here in Oregon for recommendations, based on the data and conditions we are seeing at the county level."
But some disagree with Brown's approach.
"That response is shameful," says Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an emergency room physician who has consistently pushed for a more aggressive response to COVID-19.
Meieran says it's possible to criticize President Trump and also seek to exceed his administration's safety recommendations.
"The federal administration, and the president himself, is the most culpable in how the pandemic has been mishandled and is responsible for the dysfunction throughout the country, not to mention tens of thousands of deaths," she says. "That being said, whether it's cookie cutter or not, a number of these recommendations make absolute sense and jibe with what public health experts and epidemiologists are telling us. To dismiss it out of hand is a non-answer, and I would expect better from our state leadership."
And Brown has faced renewed calls to close bars and restaurants, including from a group of doctor moms who asked the governor to do just that in hopes of lowering the case count to open schools.
The federal State Report for June 29 included a recommendation to "consider closing bars in hot spot counties to limit spread and encourage individuals that have participated in protests and large social gatherings to get tested." And then, on July 14, the report identified red and yellow zone counties. In the red zone were Umatilla County along with Malheur, Morrow and Jefferson counties.
The recommendations for those counties included: "Close bars and gyms, and create outdoor dining opportunities with pedestrian areas" and "limit social gatherings to 10 people or fewer."
For people living in such counties, the report advised: "Protect anyone with serious medical conditions at home by social distancing at home and using high levels of personal hygiene, including hand-washing and cleaning surfaces."
Brown has effectively closed bars and gyms in Umatilla County—but not until July 31, more than two weeks later, when she reinstated the county's state-at-home order. It's the only county Brown has ordered to return to staying at home. (By then, Oregon State University researchers estimated that 17% of Hermiston, the county's largest city, had COVID-19.)
To be sure, the Trump administration response to the pandemic has been political. Trump attacked mask wearing, before reversing course to sometimes support it, while continuing to downplay the virus's outsize death toll in the U.S.
That may be one reason the White House Coronavirus Task Force is not publicizing its recommendations.
The task force would not respond to the Center for Public Integrity on why the recommendations were not made public.
"I've repeatedly asked the White House why these documents are not made public and have received no response," Center for Public Integrity reporter Liz Essley Whyte tells WW. "Information about the coronavirus is still very tightly controlled by the White House. The reports go to the governors, reflecting the White House's insistence that governors lead the response to the pandemic.
"It would be helpful to people from all walks of life to see the White House's data on the national picture of the virus and to know what the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommends leaders do about it," she adds.
This week Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the task force, expressed concern about 10 localities, including Portland, according to a recording also obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. (It's not clear from the recording that Birx means Portland, Ore., but Portland, Maine, has a lower case count.)
Below are the links to State Reports for Oregon: