Mark Kujala knows there might be some skepticism when he grades Clatsop County’s response to the coronavirus pandemic so far as an A.
The Astorian and others have pressed the county Public Health Department for more information about virus cases so people might have a better understanding of the prevalence and potential health risks.
Nearly a year into the pandemic, though, the county has been fortunate not to have more hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.
“When we went into this, there was no playbook for us to put into place about what we were going to do, what roles should be assigned to who, what to expect,” said Kujala, the new chairman of the county Board of Commissioners. “So I think about it much differently in January 2021 as I did in March 2020.”
Elected to the commission in 2018, Kujala represents District 1, which covers Warrenton, Hammond and the western portion of Astoria.
A former Warrenton mayor, Kujala owned Skipanon Brand Seafoods and served as membership director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce before becoming director of the Columbia Memorial Hospital Foundation.
In an interview, he explained his grade of the county’s pandemic response, the challenges of sharing more information about the virus, his thoughts on the county’s Resiliency Project and his view on the more conservative ideological makeup of the commission.
Q: On a scale of A to F, how do you grade the county’s response so far to the coronavirus pandemic?
A: I am grading it as an A.
A: Back in March, the county stood up the incident management team, and that included our emergency management folks, but it was headed by Mike McNickle, who is our county health director.
It also brought in (emergency manager) Tiffany Brown; we had the public information officer, Tom Bennett; Don Bohn, our manager; Monica Steele, to talk about finances and what financial relief was available throughout this; and we met every day — on weekends as well — in anticipation of getting that first case.
I was just really impressed in the fact that in such a short period of time, with the information changing almost by the hour, that this group was able to kind of react, get some plans in place, knowing that we needed PPE (personal protective equipment), we needed to have a plan in place for when we got that first case.
We had Dr. (Ellen) Heinitz as the deputy chief, who was giving us kind of that clinical perspective and, of course, had been leading the response when we had those first cases.
As they kind of went out into doing their jobs when we had the quarantine take place — securing quarantine facilities, assuring wraparound services for folks that were in quarantine, making sure you brought in Consejo Hispano, to make sure that they could come in and do interpretation. Clatsop Community Action came in and provided food when people didn’t have that.
So there was a coordinated response from the county health department. And it just grew. Obviously, we didn’t know what to expect. As it kind of grew, there were gaps in what the county health department could do. We don’t have the resources as other counties do.
But there were other groups that came in and kind of filled those gaps. They stood up the community testing site — drive-thru testing out at the household hazardous waste facility. That couldn’t meet the demand. We kind of learned that there were a lot more people that wanted to get tested than they could do.
And so then Columbia Memorial Hospital, Providence Seaside Hospital, they propped up testing programs ...
So the county response has really been a countywide response, a community response.
I feel like when we’ve had issues with distributing PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funds, CEDR (Clatsop Economic Development Resources), Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, other chambers of commerce, have filled in the gaps there to help local businesses, to help individuals in the county.
So I’ve got to give it an A, because I think that there’s been a really cooperative ... I was mentioning about the cities. The cities have been able to cooperate, when it’s been closing the beaches. The sheriff’s office has been a part of these meetings.
It’s been something that has kind of grown over those initial meetings of this incident management team. I can’t say anything but an A because there are some really dedicated people in that county health department and with the county administration that have been working just nonstop over these last 10 months.
Q: The Astorian and others have pressed the county to provide more details about coronavirus cases so people might get a better understanding of the risk and spread of the virus locally. We understand the county has to balance patient privacy and public transparency. What do you say to people who want more information?
A: It’s a big challenge.
I think that when we have the health information privacy laws, we need to — we had that initial discussion in March, and Dr. Heinitz was a part of that discussion saying, ‘We can provide the very basics about who these people are.’ Because we’re a kind of small county, people can pinpoint who these people are. And just because you have COVID doesn’t mean your right to privacy fades away.
We have to respect that. So it was decided early on — and there was guidance from Oregon Health Authority on this — to provide the persons, you know, male, female, age range, whether they live in North County, South County, or whether they have been hospitalized or are convalescing at home.
And that’s really it. And I know that there’s been some pushback on that, like, ‘Listen, I want to know if this is in my community. I want to know some more information.’
But it was very clear from Dr. Heinitz from the beginning that we need to be very careful about this, because there are these protections in place — privacy protections — for individuals that are sick in our community. And we need to respect that.
And so that’s been the case.
Q: Residents in Lewis and Clark have dug in against relocating the county’s public works facility out of the tsunami inundation zone and into their rural neighborhood as part of the Resiliency Project. What do you see as the next steps in that project?
A: Kind of going back to how it all evolved. It goes back many years — the Resiliency Project and what came out of the 2007 storm was that we needed to really look at our public facilities.
Do we need to locate them in areas that are more centrally located? Public works is one that’s in an inundation zone. Can we find a better location for it?
As we looked at it, I think, two years ago, or close to two years ago — maybe a year-and-a-half ago — we looked at sites and locations. And then also the transportation aspect kind of got combined with it.
And I think that that was a mistake, ultimately, because really these are two different projects. One is the public works facility — and relocating the public works facility to a better location. And then the other is emergency access, evacuation routes ...
So we really now are just going to focus on the public works facility. We have a consultant — Mackenzie, that does land use, that does this type of work — looking and evaluating sites around the county. So not just the sort yard (at Loukas Lane and Fort Clatsop Road), but other sites in the county that might be a good location for the public works facility.
They’re going to come back in the next few weeks. We’re going to have a work session, and they’re going to present their findings, and they’re not going to give a recommendation necessarily. They’re just going to present what they’ve been able to determine through their work.
And then it will come to the commission, and we’re going to have a discussion about where we go from there.
But I understand that transportation became a big portion of this and people were concerned about having traffic and other things. These are both public safety and quality-of-life issues for people.
And so I think it’s important to kind of divorce the two of them. We’ve got a lot going on, and so I think it’s important to kind of focus on the public works facility and the relocation of that right now.
Q: We believe the county commission and other local boards should remain nonpartisan and function more like a jury that represents a cross section of our community. But we know not everyone sees the county commission that way. The commission now has a more conservative majority. What’s that going to look like in terms of public policy?
A: I think what your first statement was — I completely agree with.
I’m elected to a nonpartisan position. And so my role is really to work with all ideologies throughout our county. We’re going to need to work together.
All of the county commissioners need to work together. We need to work with staff. We need the community organizations, cities, in order to get a handle on the vaccine distribution and be able to promote economic recovery beyond that.
To me, the partisanship, or ideology, is not a part of this office. We need to all work together. Certainly, there will be differences of opinion. But characterizing what kind of ideology the commission is — I don’t feel comfortable doing that, I think we really need to be working as a group.
It’s all hands on deck, really, this year.