Oregon Delegation Announces Federal Public Health Emergency for Oregon as Smoke Continues to Blanket State

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with U.S. Representatives Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer, Greg Walden, Kurt Schrader, and Suzanne Bonamici, today announced that U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has granted the delegation’s request for a public health emergency declaration for the state of Oregon.

The public health emergency comes as smoke from unprecedented wildfires continues to blanket the state, and most of Oregon is suffering from hazardous air quality.  Portland’s air has ranked worst in the world among large cities in recent days.

“Oregon was already facing one major public health emergency, with a once-in-a-century pandemic. Now, deadly fires and hazardous air are compounding the public health dangers our communities face,” said Merkley. “We need as much federal support and assistance as we can get to weather this storm and help Oregonians stay healthy and safe during this double crisis. This declaration will help get housing supports to people in need, target response to families particularly vulnerable to this health emergency, and make sure our communities get through this disaster as safely as possible.”

“Oregonians choking on smoke and facing the massive challenge of unprecedented wildfires in the middle of a devastating pandemic fully realize the state faces a public health emergency,” Wyden said. “I know from the devastation I saw throughout Oregon last weekend that while much work remains to be done for an overall response to this disaster, today’s announcement is both welcome and timely.”

“The hazardous air conditions in Oregon are threatening the health of Oregonians across the state, while the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has shut down indoor spaces that have been used for respite from wildfire smoke in years past,” said Representative Peter DeFazio. “I’m grateful to HHS for their quick action in granting the Public Health Emergency request to give our state greater flexibility to address the healthcare needs of Oregonians during this difficult time.”

“I am thankful to Secretary Azar for rapidly approving the public health emergency related to the wildfires in Oregon. This quick approval means that we have the resources to continue to fight COVID-19 while also having the additional resources to respond to the devastating fires. I am grateful that Oregon is continuing to receive the support from the Trump Administration to begin the recovery in Southern Oregon,” said Representative Walden.

“Oregon currently has the worst air quality in the entire world,” said Representative Schrader. “Smoke from the West Coast fires has traveled to the East Coast and to parts of Europe. Even Oregonians who have not been displaced by the fires, are facing serious health consequences all while battling a global health pandemic. This much needed public health declaration will help get resources to those who need it most and help get supplies to Oregon hospitals.”

 “Smoke is making it hazardous to breathe in Oregon – a threat that is severely compounded by the pandemic,” said Representative Suzanne Bonamici. “I’m concerned about the long-term effects of smoke inhalation and other health challenges for our vulnerable communities. I’m encouraged that the Department of Health and Human Services quickly granted our request so we can protect the health of Oregonians at this critical time.”

Merkley, Wyden, DeFazio, Blumenauer, Walden, Schrader and Bonamici had urged Secretary Azar on Monday to grant the declaration. In their request, the delegation noted that smoke can make individuals more susceptible to respiratory diseases—including the coronavirus—and that the pandemic had closed indoor locations that had been used to shelter Oregonians from hazardous smoke in the past.

With the Public Health Emergency, among other resources, Oregon is receiving:

  • An Incident Management Team (IMT) and regional emergency coordinators who will coordinate with state and local health authorities and emergency response officials, medical personnel, and oversee equipment deployment in response to the state’s request;
  • The activation of the National Disaster Medical System, which will provide technical assistance to state officials, and members from the Urban Search and Rescue Teams, the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, and the Victim Information Center; and
  • Valuable data and tools to support counties’ emergency response, including the number of Medicare beneficiaries who rely on electricity dependent medical equipment—such as dialysis and home oxygen—to help anticipate, plan for, and respond to the needs of at-risk populations.