Oregon’s delegation urges feds to declare fires’ smoke public health emergency

WASHINGTON (KTVZ) — Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with Reps. Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden, on Monday urged Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to declare the wildfires in Oregon a public health emergency.

They said such a move better equips the state to respond to the disaster by freeing up resources and granting much-needed administrative flexibility.

“Air quality and smoke produced by the wildfires present a significant health threat for individuals with underlying health conditions such as asthma or lung conditions, and threaten to make the COVID-19 pandemic worse. Over the last several days, air quality across Oregon has ranked among the worst in the world and even maxed out the scale used by the Environmental Protection Agency to measure hazardous air quality. Right now, 10 percent of all hospital admissions in the state are asthma related,” the lawmakers wrote.

In addition, the Oregon members are requesting that the secretary modify critical waivers for Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule requirements to give patients and providers the greatest flexibility in meeting the dual emergency health needs of the wildfires and COVID-19, among other critical steps.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that smoke can make individuals more prone to respiratory diseases, including the coronavirus. And while in other years, Oregonians could go to their local libraries or other large indoor public spaces to be in cleaner and cooler air, many of those spaces are currently closed due to the pandemic. Wildfire evacuation protocols have challenged those who are in isolation or quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, exposure to the virus, or clinical COVID-19 symptoms,” the lawmakers continued.

In following with the issuance of a public health declaration, the Oregon members asked that appropriate actions in responding to the disaster and pandemic be taken, including but not limited to:

  • Making “no-year” funds appropriated to the Public Health Emergency Fund available;
  • Deploying regional emergency coordinators to work with federal, state, local, and tribal health officials;
  • Providing medical supplies, equipment and services;
  • Making staff from HHS’ National Disaster Medical System and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioner Corps available; and
  • Granting extensions or waiving application deadlines for any HHS grants.

The full text of the letter is available here.