Yamhill County commissioner’s retreat from hard stand on Covid may reflect reality

Commissioner Mary Starrett anticipated that her actions, including urging protests against government, could be ‘political suicide’

February 2, 2022 5:30 am
A health care professional picks up a vial of vaccine

Oregon will maintain a supply of vaccines though tens of thousands of doses are expiring. (Getty Images)

Anti-masking and anti-vax forces have pushed their protests to extraordinary degrees.

At one January rally in Washington speakers “compared U.S. vaccination policies to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Doctors in white coats falsely claimed that vaccines are ‘not working’ and advocated for unproven treatments.”

Oregon opponents of measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic have broken into and disrupted a school board meeting in Portland, hundreds of unmasked people protested in Salem in September, and last spring at a clinic set up inside a Bend high school, “anti-vaccine protesters who heckled teenagers as they entered the site, prompted the church that provided a parking lot for the event to call police.”

In Cottage Grove, plans for a two-week Covid-19 vaccination clinic were cut short after an estimated 30 vaccination protesters showed up in the parking lot. City Manager Richard Meyers was quoted in the Cottage Grove Sentinel, “It’s appalling that they think that they have a right to intimidate others and to force their pressures or ideas on others.”

Is there a practical limit to how far the anti-anti-pandemic movement may go?

Pay attention to a loud shout of protest at a meeting in Canby, followed by the startling silence a few days later at a meeting in McMinnville.

The through line is Yamhill County Commissioner Mary Starrett, a veteran of the culture wars. She appeared in Canby January 24 at a meeting of the group Free Oregon (self-described as “in the business of fighting tyranny”) which was live-streamed. She did not speak long – only about four minutes – but she got plenty of attention on broadcast media and the front page of The Oregonian.

She called for more protests against health and elected officials: “Strike at the root.”

She blasted the Oregon Health Authority and the Yamhill County health office for their anti-pandemic efforts, and said, “I think when we take a look at the data that’s coming out of the Oregon Health Authority, it is absolutely based in a narrative that can no longer stand up.”

She offered no specifics. She and fellow Commissioner Lindsey Berschauer have called on the county health department to post messages discrediting the vaccines and promoting untested home remedies. The department refused, saying that would run against medical science.

Yamhill’s health agency has accreditation from the Public Health Accreditation Board which can be a factor in funding and which says it is “committed to strengthening health departments’ capacity to deliver essential public health services while inspiring new and innovative approaches to public health practice.” The approval process includes submitting a letter of support from the governing body, a renewal the Yamhill County Commission had on its agenda for last week.

Starrett said she wanted to deny the county health office that approval.

The Canby group cheered loudly after Starrett told them, “This Thursday, we’re going to have what I call a showdown. … So we’re going to make sure they either say, yes, we’re going to put this stuff on the website, which talks about some of the early treatments and talks about how these numbers are completely and utterly false, or you’re not going to get your letter.”

She went on, “That will either mean I don’t get reelected, at which point it’s fine. If I do get reelected, it’s fine. But what we’re going to say is ‘you pick, you got a letter of approval to do your public health work or you don’t.’ So, I don’t know. This is a really difficult decision to make because it’s suicidal, could be suicidal, but I also think it’s time we start doing stuff like this.”

The reference to political suicide may have gotten some attention back home, if only because electoral politics definitely is on the table there. Starrett is up for election this year, the primary election little more than three months off. Berschauer, her ally on the commission, is the current target of a recall effort that appears likely to go to election in April.

Between the Jan. 24 meeting in Canby and the commission meeting on Jan. 27, either she reconsidered her last-stand scenario or someone persuaded her to change. No showdown happened at the commission meeting; instead, the sought-after letter of endorsement was quietly approved. The health department’s website is unchanged.

What happened? Starrett didn’t offer anything like a clear explanation. One commenter on a local newspaper story snarked, “Starrett got what she wanted, a lot of press and attention.”

Maybe. But she could have gotten more attention if she’d blown up the commission meeting, and as it is, she caved completely on her earlier bravado. The likelier explanation is that she found she had pushed the envelope too hard, too far.

And that may constitute an incident worth attention from other local government officials.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.