An Inside View of the COVID-19 Response Team


Check out the Agency Operations Center to see how teams of experts are coming together to share information and fight the coronavirus in Oregon

PORTLAND – When a new person walks into the Agency Operations Center in northeast Portland, the 20 busy workers sitting at the rows of desks introduce themselves and say hi, but they don’t extend a hand to shake – instead, they offer an elbow bump. That’s because they’re dedicated to practicing what they preach in terms of controlling the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus with minimizing high-touch areas, practicing good handwashing, and covering coughs.

The Agency Operations Center is a physical space where the Incident Management Team for COVID-19 gathers to share information. Together, they aim to respond as safely and effectively as possible to the COVID-19 coronavirus to reduce its impact, insure public health operations continue with the resources they need, work with the federal health authorities, and keep the public informed by sharing accurate information with the media and constantly updating the state’s coronavirus website.

Why put everyone together in the same room? The purpose is to share new information as quickly and accurately as possible. The teams huddling up include: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oregon Health Authority, Oregon Emergency Management, Department of Human Services,  Oregon Department of Education, Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon Department of Justice, Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, Oregon State Fire Marshall, Oregon Department of Transportation, and local public health officials.

Governor Kate Brown practicing social distancing while meeting with AOC team members

With that many agencies involved, the team utilizes the Incident Command Structure, the same one that FEMA uses. It’s part of the national response system that originated from firefighting and ensures an integrated response that minimizes confusion or repetition. An Incident Manager heads the entire Agency Operations Center, overseeing teams of Safety Officers, Senior Health Advisors, Health Intelligence Operations (such as laboratories, epidemiology, emergency medical supplies, and health care facilities), Liaison Officers (who work with schools, Tribes, and vulnerable populations, for example), Public Information Officers, Logistics, Planning, Finance, and Legal.

Here, teams share information and make the tough, important decisions like whether schools should close, if restaurant workers need any further health guidelines to keep food safe, and when it doesn’t make sense to continue contract tracing.

Color-coded vests help quickly identify which agency a team member represents.

In the Agency Operations Center (AOC), 95 staffers work to identify what needs to be done on behalf of the people of Oregon and respond promptly and effectively. They monitor testing results, handle requests for guidance for businesses, agencies, and healthcare agencies, coordinate with the Centers for Disease Control, and make sure it all works with the laws, policies, and procedures in Oregon. Monitors on the walls display critical information. One shows requests for masks, gowns, and other medical supplies from various Oregon counties. Another shows the capacity of emergency departments and hospital beds across the state. Draped over the back of the team members’ chairs are colorful vests emblazoned with the name of their department (epidemiology, logistics, environment, incident management, etc.) so that it’s easy to identify the subject expert you need to find.

“The room is at a constant buzz that sometimes goes up to a roar,” says Angela Beers Seydel, Lead Public Information Officer and a FEMA vet who was part of the response team for outbreaks like H1N1. “Since COVID-19 is a worldwide issue, we’re trying not to recreate the wheel. Instead, we identify what’s unique to our population in Oregon and decide how are we as a state respond going forward.”

Stickers promoting hand washing are distributed at the front desk.

Next door to the AOC is the Joint Information Center, the Portland counterpart to the Emergency Coordination Center in Salem. Here, the findings, recommendations, and resources are communicated to the media and the public. “The goal is making sure we have accurate, fast responses to questions so that no one is getting conflicting information,” says Beers Seydel. The team of a dozen communications experts makes sure the information is being expressed as clearly as possible, creates helpful infographics, and translates information into the five most common languages spoken in Oregon, so it’s accessible to non-English-speakers as well.

“With emergency preparedness, 95% of our work is planning, so we can be ready for the 5% of the time there’s an emergency,” says Cory Grogan, Public Information Officer for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management and the manager of the Joint Information Center. “Some of the people here are working 12-hour shifts. The team is competent, levelheaded, hard-working, and selfless to put their other jobs and their personal lives to the side to support this effort. Everyone here is stepping up and working extra hard to share information and keep Oregonians as safe and healthy as possible.”

For daily update emails about COVID-19, sign up through the Oregon Health Authority, or find more info at the Governor’s coronavirus resources website.

About Author

Sarah Wexler is the Director of Strategic Communications in the Office of Governor Kate Brown

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