A red sun lowered in the smoky evening sky above Grants Pass as more than 50 people gathered in lawn chairs in a garden outside the Josephine County courthouse.
To start the county commissioners’ public meeting, the group — mostly un-masked constituents and some of their children — stood proudly for the American flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance with their hands over their hearts.
For the next 90 minutes Wednesday, locals lined up at a podium for a three-minute window to share with the county’s three commissioners their thoughts about COVID-19.
A mother said she’s considering moving her family out of the community if Gov. Kate Brown’s statewide mask mandate is enforced. One woman claimed the coronavirus was created in order to force experimental vaccines on the public. Another called the vaccine a “kill shot.”
Some in the group cheered.
When it was the commissioners’ turn to respond, Herman Baertschiger, a former Republican state senator, said: “COVID is real, I don’t think there is anyone who thinks it’s not” — even though that’s exactly what some in the crowd had just publicly proclaimed, including a man wearing a shirt with the words “no muzzle, no vaccine, no fear, don’t comply, defy.”
The meeting represents a microcosm of the enormous challenges facing Oregon and the divided Grants Pass community, which is being devastated by a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Three counties in southwestern Oregon — Josephine, Douglas and Curry — are among the hardest-hit nationally, with new per-resident case rates that exceed even the carnage seen for the states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. Case rates over the past week are so high, in fact, that those three Oregon counties ranked among the 60 worst in all of America, according to a national database compiled by The New York Times, each averaging 150 daily cases per 100,000 residents.
Oregon’s record-breaking summer surge has exposed a state divided, with people living in low-vaccination communities along Interstate 5 in Southern Oregon and Interstate 84 in Eastern Oregon bearing the brunt of the highly contagious delta variant. Fueled by spread in those communities, Oregon ranks 16th nationally in recent case rates, averaging nearly 2,100 a day, with 866 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 241 of those in intensive care — all records.
While nearly 71% of Oregon adults are at least partially vaccinated against COVID, the virus is surging most rampantly in small cities and disconnected rural communities plagued by misinformation, political polarization and disjointed local leadership that at times won’t back health care workers’ pleas for support. And in a region where residents often feel misunderstood and mischaracterized by people in liberal Portland, small hospitals with waning, fatigued staff are not equipped to handle the outbreak, sometimes sending their sickest north to the metro area.
But on the quiet streets of cities in Southern Oregon, a historically anti-vaccine part of the state, the looming crisis is not always entirely apparent. While some libraries have closed to indoor visitation, at local restaurants, bars and stores, mask-wearing is hit-or-miss. Those who choose not to wear a mask are typically left alone.
Denise Wisnovsky, a resident in neighboring Jackson County, said she’s not concerned about the current surge in her community. Emerging maskless from a grocery store in Medford, she said Oregon’s rural community feels ignored by the state on issues close to home, and that many “don’t like being told what to do.”
“I’m not anti-vax, but I want to be educated. I do my research and I have a lot of friends who are doctors and nurses,” said Wisnovsky, who is not vaccinated, as she loaded produce into her SUV. She believes the public is being told lies about the COVID case numbers and being “manipulated by the government.”
In a much different scene than Wednesday’s Josephine County meeting on the courthouse lawn, commissioners a day earlier heard testimony from health workers at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass. The hospital representatives said intensive care unit beds were beyond capacity and the local morgue was full. Several patients in the ICU rooms were separated by only cloth partitions.
According to the administrators, 94% of their COVID patients were unvaccinated.
Despite the grim picture, commissioners repeatedly interrupted the health experts to question the efficacy of vaccines, suggest the surge was caused by immigrants and promote discredited treatments for COVID.
But the commissioners did reluctantly approve using more than $500,000 from a state-funded grant intended to help distribute and promote the vaccine. The money had been available for months, but in May they turned it down.
Brady Keister and Dorothy Yetter, neighbors who live in rural Grants Pass, walked away from the courthouse lawn meeting in Josephine County on Wednesday frustrated by the commissioners’ response to their plea for leadership.
Keister said he believes the group who gathered was a “vocal minority,” although 48% of all adults in the county remain unvaccinated.
“I’m angry, because I’m vaccinated,” Yetter said. “As soon as the booster shot is available, I’m going for it. When the commissioners say, ‘Talk to your doctors,’ the reality is we’re a poor county — and not a lot of people have a primary physician. The commissioners are disconnected from the community, and they appeal to these people who are speaking and get cheered because of conspiracy theories.”
It’s a similar story 30 minutes south, across the Jackson County line in Medford. About 42% of adults in the county remain unvaccinated.
Mars Hints works for a mutual aid project through the Rogue Action Center, coordinating daily free meals for folks in need at Hawthorne Park next to I-5. Hints said conspiracy theories run though every segment of the community, from the rural cannabis farms to families in trailer homes in Rogue Valley to homeless camps along the Bear Creek Greenway.
“There’s a large amount of people who have fallen into mistrust for the government because they’ve been neglected by the system, so it’s hard for them to believe in science,” Hints said.
Hints received the full Pfizer vaccine and experienced a recent breakthrough case of COVID-19 after being exposed to someone in the community. Hints said it felt like a 48-hour flu, and believed it was a minor case.
Sam Altunel was at Hawthorne Park with Hints on Friday morning, giving out free meals from his food truck, Sultan’s Delight.
Altunel said he doesn’t understand why people are so against the vaccine in Medford, and why it’s become a politicized issue. Altunel, originally from Turkey, has lived in Medford for 30 years. His wife works at Providence Medford Medical Center, he said, and she sees the reality of the filling hospitals — 193 people are hospitalized in Jackson and Josephine counties with COVID-19, compared to 260 in the far more populous Portland area.
“But I’m more worried about the fires and the air quality,” Altunel said, pointing to the smoky horizon over the hills. “It’s depressing.”
Sharon Bateman, a lifelong Jackson County resident, placed her groceries from Food for Less in her car and pointed to the smoke, saying “things have just gotten so ugly here.”
Bateman’s family home was destroyed in the Almeda Fire last year.
She said she doesn’t know what to believe about the coronavirus. Their family is being cautious in light of the delta variant, Bateman said, as they take care of her 90-year-old father.
Bateman, who works in a school library, said that after 17 years she may have to find a new job since Brown announced new vaccine mandates for school employees and volunteers.
“We’re not pro-vaccine, there’s too many side effects, and it was created too quickly,” Bateman said, adding that she doesn’t support Oregon’s governor or President Joe Biden, both Democrats, who are “running a circus.”
Jade Waits, 27, moved to Southern Oregon from Los Angeles with her 4-year-old daughter last year. She was attracted to the small Medford community because of the number of jobs and low COVID case rates. Waits and her daughter are immunocompromised, she said.
“This area is either very left or very right,” said Waits, who has been vaccinated. “There aren’t a lot of in-betweens here, and it makes for a lack of community.”
At the Medford Armory, an Oregon National Guard unit of 150 citizen soldiers spent Friday morning in a training session where they were briefed for their upcoming mission to support area hospitals struggling with the surge in COVID patients.
A total of about 300 soldiers will be sent to Asante hospitals in the region, the other half to Providence Medford Medical Center.
Their hospital mission in Jackson and Josephine counties is planned to be a six-week activation; most will support staff with janitorial work, organizing overflow areas, taking temperatures, giving directions, delivering personal protective equipment and other supplies, cleaning non-infectious areas — even washing dishes.
It’s unclear, however, how many of the citizen soldiers in the unit are vaccinated themselves.
National Guard public information officer Major Chris Clyne said they’re not keeping track of how many soldiers are vaccinated until after the Department of Defense’s recent order requiring vaccinations takes effect.
The Department of Defense is expected to add the COVID-19 vaccine to its mandatory list as soon as the vaccine receives full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with the Pfizer-BioNTech set to receive it as soon as Monday.
That mandatory vaccination timeline is even sooner than the new requirement for Oregon’s healthcare workers, who have until Oct. 18 or six weeks from full federal approval — whichever date is later.
Anthony Vincent Hess, a company commander for the National Guard in Medford, estimates that less than half of his unit assigned to the area hospitals is vaccinated. More than 73% of active duty personnel have received at least one shot of the vaccines as of Aug. 10, according to the Department of Defense.
Hess, who contracted COVID last year, said he is not vaccinated. “Our battalion commanders have encouraged us to be bipartisan on the matter,” Hess said. “Everyone has their views. The general consensus here is that people don’t want to be vaccinated. As far as us in uniform, when the FDA approves it, we’re willing to do what we’re told.”
Further north up I-5 in Douglas County, about a dozen families gathered outside the entrances at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg during the nurses’ shift change around 7 p.m. Friday night.
Hospital workers had been through a difficult week: one COVID-19 patient died in the emergency department after waiting hours to be transferred to the intensive care unit, where all the beds were full.
As nightfall arrived, parents and children carried homemade signs that said “Stay strong”, “We love our healthcare workers” and “Dear patients, you are in good hands.”
A chorus of beeps and long honks reverberated from car horns driving by on the highway.
Randy Hubbard, a hospital administrator for Mercy Medical, stood with his two sons and wife Janelle, after working 11-hour days all week trying to accommodate the overflow of COVID-19 patients at the small 108-bed hospital. Hubbard helped convert an outpatient surgical center into a 30-bed hospital unit for non-COVID patients waiting for care, and 75 national guard soldiers will arrive Monday morning at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg.
Hubbard said 51 of 59 COVID patients at the hospital are not vaccinated. Mercy Medical did not confirm that number as of Saturday morning.
“It’s tragic,” Janelle Hubbard said of the news that a person with COVID-19 died while waiting for life-saving care in the ICU.
“I hope it opens some peoples’ eyes,” she added. “It’s sad that people haven’t listened to the science and believed it.”
Roseburg leaders, including state Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, who has been prominently anti-masking, has led to further confusion among Douglas County residents who don’t have accurate information about the coronavirus, Janelle Hubbard said.
Some 51% of Douglas County adults remain unvaccinated, although inoculation numbers are improving.
The Roseburg community is still divided, said Ryan Finlay, a father of six who leads a local news site called Roseburg Tracker and organized the Friday night demonstration supporting healthcare workers at Mercy Medical.
The community galvanized at the beginning of the pandemic to support healthcare workers, but there weren’t many cases in Douglas County then, and pandemic fatigue grew, Finlay said.
“People in Douglas County were lulled to sleep with the first wave of COVID, but they’re waking up now, because delta is here,” Finlay said.
“It’s getting to the point now where, in such a small community, everybody is going to know someone who is sick or dying.”