Benton County-Corvallis Emergency Operations Center Progress Report

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Benton County-Corvallis Emergency Operation Center (EOC) issued this progress report for the initial activation and response in March and April 2020.

The Benton County-Corvallis EOC was activated to support the Benton County Health Department’s response efforts, particularly the “information pandemic” that characterized the early days of the emergency. This work quickly expanded to leading the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) in partnership with the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. Additional tasks followed, including volunteer and donation management, and contingency planning for a variety of emergency scenarios. 

As of April 24, the EOC began transitioning to the recovery phase of the emergency. Under this model, the focus will shift from emergency response to economic and community recovery.

Activation – March 17

The EOC was formally activated on March 17, when the Benton County Board of Commissioners declared a countywide emergency amid a worsening COVID-19 pandemic worldwide.

In truth, the municipal agencies and partner organizations in Benton County had been planning for a joint activation for weeks. The slow, steady spread of the novel coronavirus had been tracked by global health experts since it emerged overseas. Its arrival in Oregon, and Benton County, was only a matter of time.

The pandemic represented a scenario that was rarely covered in emergency management training courses. Instead of a singular disaster like a flood or an earthquake, the pandemic was poised to sweep through every major population center in the nation. No state or community would be spared, and resources would be stretched thin nationwide. 

The emergency response would need to focus on mitigation, and it would need to be sustained for a period of weeks, if not months. 

Initial Efforts

This pandemic represented the first activation for the EOC, which was designed to be staffed jointly by employees from Benton County and the City of Corvallis. Both organizations had been training on just such an activation for the last 18 months. 

Initial efforts at the EOC focused on developing a staffing plan that could expand rapidly based on the needs of the local emergency. Benton County and the City of Corvallis also engaged in robust discussions at the leadership level about exactly how to track expenditures and pay for the costs of this pandemic. 

Tasks in the first week were focused on assigning staff to specific roles, particularly section chiefs and branch directors who would be responsible for building plans and gathering more staff to execute those plans. This effort coincided with a shift to remote work for large sections of the city and county workforce. Staff from the city and county who reported to the EOC were asked to put aside their “day jobs” and take on new, sometimes very different responsibilities to help the pandemic response.

From the beginning, city and county leaders recognized that economic recovery would be a key component of our pandemic response. Even as executive orders from the Governor’s office put large swathes of the economy on pause, the Benton County EOC brought in a dedicated Economic Development Recovery Team to begin laying the groundwork for our eventual re-opening. This team played a critical role during the early days of the pandemic by identifying and supporting the needs of the business community throughout Benton County.

PPE Collection & Distribution

As the EOC ramped up, it quickly became clear that the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) was precarious, both in Benton County and around the country. This equipment was critical to ensuring the safety of healthcare workers and other essential employees. 

One of the EOC’s first tasks was to develop a plan for stockpiling and rationing PPE. This involved:

  • Gathering and inventorying PPE from local businesses, including HP and OSU, as well as community donations.
  • Coordinating deliveries of PPE provided by the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.
  • Purchasing PPE from commercial retailers and manufacturers on the open market.
  • Tracking PPE stocks and daily “burn rate” for all major healthcare facilities in the area.
  • Using this data to distribute PPE based on need to healthcare and other essential facilities in Benton County. 

The EOC understood that PPE collection and distribution would need transparency safeguards to ensure that all community partners understood how the system worked. The EOC’s Operations Section set up a PPE Distribution Committee, composed of five different partner organizations, plus a neutral sixth member as an impartial observer, to make collective decisions about how to distribute PPE as the pandemic unfolded. This arrangement worked well to build trust and transparency in the community.

As the EOC began collecting and inventorying medical-grade PPE, a parallel effort began in the Corvallis community, with volunteers organizing to create hand-sewn cloth masks to provide to essential workers and other community members. This initiative took on greater importance after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance on April 3 for people to wear cloth masks in public.  The Corvallis Sewing Brigade deserves special mention as leaders in this effort. Their volunteers created and distributed more than 10,000 cloth masks over the first 6 weeks of the pandemic. 

Public Information

The public information component of the emergency response began on February 28, when Benton County established a Joint Information Center (JIC) to coordinate messaging about the unfolding pandemic. This was weeks before the EOC was activated and underscores the importance of disseminating accurate info at the outset of the emergency.

From the outset, the JIC coordinated its communications with the Benton County Health Department, to ensure that the latest information on health-related topics was part of their regular messaging.

In the early days, the JIC focused on two messages:

  • Coronavirus prevention and mitigation efforts, based on guidance from state and federal health authorities (know the symptoms, wash your hands, avoid public places, etc.). This info changed rapidly in the early days, requiring repeated and sustained messaging.
  • Closures, cancellations, and service adjustments in Benton County, mostly focused on public facilities and programs, while also reinforcing that many public services were still available through other avenues (online, phone support, etc.). This effort also included collaboration with large local institutions such as schools and businesses.

When the EOC was activated, the JIC was absorbed into that effort, although the JIC (with as many as 7 staff at the height of the pandemic) remained at a separate location due to physical distancing requirements.

As the EOC got up and running, the JIC settled into a rhythm. New case updates were released daily via website update, and public information officers collaborated on a short daily briefing video (3-5 minutes, perfect for social media) touching on key messages from a wide variety of service agencies. PIOs monitored social media to stay abreast of the latest rumors and chatter in the community. The JIC produced talking points, fact sheets, and other resources for specific audiences.

The JIC also had a role to play in communicating to internal city and county audiences, including elected officials. PIOs organized tours of the EOC for elected officials in mid-April to give them a comprehensive overview of the pandemic response.

Volunteer and Donation Management

As the pandemic took hold around the country, the Benton County community stepped up in ways large and small. Shortly after the EOC opened up, an effort got underway to tap into that positive energy and provide a centralized, trusted resource for the community to use for donations and volunteering. 

Staff launched Benton County Recovers, a website built on a free, open source engagement platform. The purpose of the website was to connect donors and volunteers with needs in the community. A donation site was set up in the Library parking garage and staffed by CERT volunteers. The JIC promoted this resource heavily as part of their outreach strategy. The push during the first 6 weeks was narrowly focused on gathering donations of PPE from community members.

Through the month of April, this grassroots community donation effort yielded the following:

  • 2,562 N95 masks
  • 7,960 regular masks
  • 11,480 pairs of gloves
  • 434 face shields
  • 900 lab coats

After about a month of sustained activity, the Library donation site was scaled back as its initial goals were accomplished. 

The donation component of this operation remains largely untapped after the first six weeks of EOC activity. The volunteer database on the Benton County Recovers website contains several hundred volunteers with a variety of skill sets. The database may be a useful resource as the EOC transitions to focus on economic recovery and new needs are identified in the community, or if we experience a renewed outbreak in the months to come.

Contingency Planning

When the EOC was first activated, the pandemic numbers were grim. As many as 800 hospital beds might be needed in Benton County by mid-April if the prognosis did not improve, far outstripping our local capacity. Daily deaths could easily overwhelm the limited space at area funeral homes.

With that in mind, the Operations Section began assembling a series of contingency plans for these potential scenarios.

1.  Alternative Care Site – Initial projects showed that the pandemic could easily exceed the capacity of our local hospital system. Many COVID-19 patients do not need the level of care provided by a full hospital admission. The EOC’s Public Health Branch began formulating a plan to stand up an alternative care site to provide a safe recovery space for those who need supportive care, but not a full hospital admission. The site will be staffed by healthcare workers and will be intended to take pressure off the main hospital system as it deals with the more critical influx of COVID-19 patients.

2.  Morgue Overflow Plan – This plan was intended to manage a large increase in daily deaths in Benton County, defined as more than 10 deaths in a single day. As part of this plan, the EOC developed an auxiliary mortuary system to support overwhelmed funeral homes. The system provides for the identification of decedents, the notification of families, transport to and from temporary morgues, and the final disposition of decedents. This was a sensitive topic that needed to be communicated delicately to EOC staff as well as city and county workers.

The pandemic situation in Benton County improved to the point where, so far, these plans have not implemented in their entirety. They remain as robust resources in the event that the pandemic worsens; they can also be adapted to other emergencies that might occur in Benton County in the future.

Vulnerable Populations Outreach

From the outset of the pandemic, the EOC began planning for services and outreach to the entire community, including vulnerable populations. This work began in the Operations Section and was soon moved to its own branch with dedicated staff support. Target audiences included:

  • LatinX community – Regular communications in Spanish via direct outreach and social media, support for existing service agencies in the community
  • Low income/food insecure community – Information and support for food service providers, and possible use of county transportation resources for food deliveries to food banks.
  • People experiencing homelessness – City and county leaders provided emergency regulatory and enforcement relief for temporary microshelters and camping. They also provided significant financial support for volunteers providing hygiene and sanitation services to people experiencing homelessness. This population was also identified as primary users of the alternative care site discussed in the Contingency Planning section.  
  • Rural farm workers – Coordinate with public health specialists to communicate guidelines for farm workers from Oregon Health Authority.
  • Other non-English speaking communities – Coordinate with Corvallis School District to provide information on languages other than English.
  • Developmental diversity providers, such as group homes – JIC developed special outreach designed to communicate complex information about the coronavirus for audiences of all ages.
  • Homebound seniors – Prescription drug delivery for seniors or those who are medically fragile.

Transition to the Recovery Phase

By mid-April, health officials were cautiously optimistic that the statewide Stay Home, Save Lives executive order, combined with local efforts, had slowed the spread of coronavirus and allowed our hospital system to stay ahead of the worst of the outbreak. 

Discussions at the EOC turned toward helping the community get back on its feet. Economic recovery is a key component of any disaster or emergency, and it requires a robust level of staffing and support. 

On April 24, the EOC pivoted to focus on the economic recovery while retaining all the planning and work that had been done to prepare for the pandemic. The goal of the economic recovery is to plan ahead and lay the groundwork for the re-opening of Oregon and Benton County, so that the community can move quickly to rebuild and re-open. Such an effort almost certainly will be combined with new, long-term guidance from state health officials about our “new normal,” which could persist for months or years to come.