UMATILLA COUNTY — Eastern Oregon residents expressed to Sen. Ron Wyden during a June 25 virtual hall that many in their community are not taking COVID-19 precautions seriously despite rising case levels.

One Elgin woman referenced a quote by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, that some Americans “don’t believe in science and don’t believe in authority.”

“What steps can be taken to deliver COVID-19 info to people of this mindset?” she asked.

Wyden said while there is no simple answer, many people are more willing to trust their friends and neighbors than an expert in Washington, D.C. He said in a small community, people seeing their neighbors wearing a mask at the grocery store can have more of an effect than “handing out 10 papers by Tony Fauci.”

“At a fundamental level, you cannot in effect force people — control — how everybody handles a pandemic,” he said. “You just can’t. But when you wear a mask where people see how important it is to you, and your family and friends, I personally think that makes a really big difference.”

He said he wears a mask while around other people, based on the scientific evidence that doing so helps lower the risk of transmitting COVID-19. He encouraged everyone else to take it upon themselves to lead by example in their own circle.

“Talk to friends, talk to family, tell them why you believe in precautions, and why those precautions are important to you,” he said.

In response to another question about COVID-19, Wyden said that “practical, common sense measures” like washing your hands shouldn’t have anything to do with political parties. Wyden also talked about the need to increase testing and contact tracing, and said small community pharmacies like Murray Drug in Heppner should be part of the solution in making testing available to everyone. He also said he was working to help get personal protective equipment, testing reagents and other supplies to Oregon.

Wyden said when a vaccine becomes available he wants to make sure it is affordable to everyone.

“As I’ve always felt with respect to pharmaceuticals, it’s great to have the product, but if people can’t afford to get the product, how did the innovations and the breakthrough really help people in their homes and in their communities?” he said.

He promised as a member of Congress that he would work to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable that in exchange for all of the federal funding they were receiving to research COVID-19 and develop a vaccine or cure, there will be no “profiteering” off of the end result.

Other topics Wyden addressed at the town hall for Umatilla, Morrow, Union and Wallowa counties included the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, protecting the integrity of inspector general positions in federal agencies, problems with the Oregon Employment Department’s system for disbursing unemployment benefits, and the importance of a strong meat inspection program.

He said when the United States is no longer dealing with the physical and economic effects of the pandemic, he wants to see the country create a national strategic food reserve to prepare for future crises.

Wyden also addressed a question from a viewer about voting by mail, a topic he frequently tweets about. He said since the COVID-19 outbreak the need for all Americans to be able to vote by mail has moved from an academic question to an issue of public health.

Wyden, a Democrat, said he was the country’s first senator elected completely by mail, and that former senator from Oregon Gordon Smith, a Republican, was the second, proving that members of both parties can be elected through a vote-by-mail system. He also pushed back on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s claims that expanding mail-in ballots would encourage fraud.

“The late (Oregon Secretary of State) Dennis Richardson, who was a Republican, a conservative, he actually wrote Donald Trump and said ‘Oregon just hasn’t seen it,’ and that’s because we have been so strong in opposing the kinds of things that could generate fraud,” Wyden said.

He said some in Washington, D.C. want to “suffocate” the U.S. Postal Service to profit off of privatizing the service or to prevent voting by mail. But he said the postal service provides medications and other important supplies to rural Americans who can’t access them locally.

“I don’t think rural Oregon, or rural America, can afford not to have this lifeline,” he said.

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