In the pre-dawn hours of March 12—a week or so before most of her fellow Oregonians would truly comprehend that their world had been turned upside down and inside out by an insistent virus—Dr. Maxine Dexter could not sleep. Instead, she got out of bed at 2:30 a.m. and wrote a clear-eyed, furiously urgent letter to Gov. Kate Brown, laying out exactly what needed to happen for Oregon to fight back against the COVID-19 outbreak, from closing schools to ordering residents to shelter in place to placing a freeze on evictions and mortgage foreclosures.
Just 12 hours later, hundreds of doctors from around the state had signed on. The document would become the blueprint for Oregon’s actions in the coming weeks, even as state officials dragged their heels on some of the recommendations. Ultimately, Dexter’s prescription helped Oregon emerge as a model state that had managed to contain the virus as well as anywhere within the United States.
Looking back, it’s almost shocking to see the precision with which Dexter, a critical care and lung physician in Portland, pinpointed all that was about to go wrong in Oregon, from the shortage of ventilators and testing capacity to the need for child care for essential workers.
“We will never know if we averted anything,” she says now. “But it really was that feeling, that lives were on the line.”
Dexter, who was one of four Democrats running to succeed longtime state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, stepped off the campaign trail as soon as the scope of the coronavirus response made it clear she’d be needed at the hospital. In the May 19 election, she won anyway, with roughly 50 percent of the vote. Looking forward, she says she sees more questions than answers.
“Does having had the infection give you protection from getting it again?” she asks. “We don’t know. Does the virus change too rapidly for a vaccine to work? We don’t know. How does all this end?”
That’s the zillion-dollar question, and even Dexter, the doctor who knew what needed to be done when this all began, doesn’t know that one.
But she did say that not every change wrought by coronavirus is bad.
“I have been inspired by the solidarity and the spirit, the neighbors who wait for me to come out every night at 7 p.m. to cheer, the nurses and respiratory therapists, those who are making masks for each other,” she says. “Even though we are physically distanced, we are socially more aligned than ever before. I hope we will recenter ourselves around compassion.”