Multnomah County’s ER Doc Commissioner Pushes For Stronger COVID-19 Response

By Crystal Ligori and Courtney Sherwood

Dr. Sharon E. Meieran does not mince words when she assesses how Oregon and the United States are responding to the coronavirus crisis.

As an emergency department physician who has continued to practice at Kaiser Permanente’s Westside and Sunnyside ERs since she was sworn in as a Multnomah County commissioner in 2017, she straddles the worlds of politics and science. And Meieran says our leaders are consistently failing us as they put political concerns first.

Those failures begin at the top, she told OPB, noting that she grew concerned about what began as a local epidemic in Wuhan, China, in January, as it became clear that the virus’ spread was becoming progressively worse.

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“If the federal government took this seriously back in January and did the right planning, we all across the nation would have been in a much different situation now,” she said. “No one, including myself, really could have expected how badly things would turn out in the United States. I could never have imagined that our advanced health system would fail so fundamentally.”

She is also critical of Oregon’s leaders – in particular, Gov. Kate Brown. Meieran has turned to social media to criticize the governor’s executive order, and to urge stronger action and stricter restrictions.

“Ordering people to stay home and eliminating non-essential activity is a central tenant of how to save lives in a pandemic,” the county commissioner said. “We don’t need to exempt construction or manufacturing and let other businesses decide for themselves whether they think it’s better to make money or protect their employees and our community’s health.”

Meieran says Oregon could learn by studying California’s stay-home order, which defined essential business much more narrowly and was more straightforward telling residents to restrict their activities.

The state could also learn from Washington’s decision to appoint a “coronavirus czar,” a single person in charge of overseeing the COVID-19 response.

“When we’re facing something as scary and complex as the coronavirus, I think that people need to know that someone is in charge who is firmly grounded in science, takes a strategic and tactical approach, who has experience in pandemic or epidemic response and mobilization,” Meieran said. “Someone needs to be able to bridge the political and the scientific and to recognize that if and when these things are in conflict, the political and the scientific, the science always has to win when lives are at stake.”

These are not just abstract concerns to Meieran, who sees herself as a front line worker engaged in a dangerous fight.

“Frankly, health care workers are scared,” she said. “We watch as the wave is coming toward us out here and we know, or fear, that our resources are going to be overwhelmed and we won’t be able to provide the care people needed. And we’re scared.”

And if Meieran believes state and federal leaders have not done enough, she is still willing to place her hope in a public that can make a difference in the spread of COVID-19.

“No one wants to be the person that spreads this virus and get someone else sick,” she said. “Stay home.”

Correction (April 2, 2020): This story initially misstated the hospitals where Commissioner Sharon Meieran works as an ER doctor. OPB regrets the mistake.