February of last year started out celebratory, as Clean Water Services marked the 50 years of the community’s investment in the Tualatin River Watershed. On February 3, 1970, the community, responding to a public health crisis, voted to approve the formation of one of the nation's first regional water utilities. On February 28, 2020, a new public health crisis officially became a reality in our region when Oregon’s first case of COVID-19 was reported right here in Washington County.
As of February 17, 2021, that county has seen 20,698 confirmed cases of the virus. As a result, 943 residents have been hospitalized and 208 have died.
“The COVID‐19 pandemic has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on communities of color across our county, compounding the existing health disparities and economic inequalities faced by Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities and individuals,” the county’s Board of Commissioners, which also serves as Board of Directors for CWS, said as it proclaimed March to be COVID-19 Remembrance Month. “The pandemic has had unprecedented economic impacts, including record unemployment which has led many people in our community to be unable to pay their bills and in need of the support of the county and community partners.”
In recognition of those economic impacts, CWS helped to secure $3 million from the CARES Act to fund a utility assistance program that served economically challenged ratepayers in Washington County, and made the decision to hold off on planned increases to sanitary sewer and surface water management rates through June 30, 2021.
In response to scarcity, the community stepped up by tripling their donations for the food insecure during the annual CWS Leaf Disposal and Food Drive, while CWS staff implemented the People Protecting People project to provide personal protective equipment where it is needed most in collaboration with several community partners.
As of the February 28 COVID-19 anniversary, approximately 1.5 million pieces of PPE had been distributed to agricultural workers, COVID Business Recovery Centers, community-based organizations, TriMet passengers, and employees of Washington County assisted living facilities and food processing companies. Those distribution efforts continue.
Ensuring our water is safe and clean always requires vigilance, but it took on new urgency in the face of a global pandemic. Four-hundred employees had to find ways to work together while staying apart, but CWS staff never stopped delivering the round-the-clock, essential services upon which our community depends.
They also never stopped innovating and connecting, as they collaborated with OSU, OHSU and Oregon Health Authority on research projects to help public health officials detect the presence and scope of the virus in communities through wastewater testing.
As a utility born out of a community coming together to address a public health crisis, CWS mourns those lost while looking forward with hope as our community continues working together to overcome this current crisis and prepare for those that lie ahead.