Dire warnings about the vaccine mandate unlikely to play out in Oregon

But the mandate could affect emergency room and therapy waits, reduce the availability of hospital beds and cause prison lockdowns 

By: , and - October 18, 2021 6:00 am

Rural officials have warned for more than a month that the vaccine mandate would put some Oregonians at risk as employees resigned or were fired.

That mandate took hold Monday, covering tens of thousands of state employees, health care workers and school staff.

Not long after Gov. Kate Brown imposed that mandate in August, Baker County commissioners said ambulances wouldn’t be available for emergencies along Interstate 84. 

A Yamhill County commissioner predicted that schools, hospitals and fire departments would be hit with an exodus of staff that would affect services.

Warrenton’s mayor warned that volunteer firefighters would quit, causing a “rude awakening.”

At least five counties Yamhill, Malheur, Jefferson, Baker and Jackson declared an emergency, and police, firefighters and others sued to pressure the governor to back down.

Public officials now say they expect thousands of employees will not be at work after Monday’s deadline of 11:59 p.m.

They say those absences could disrupt government services and medical care, but no one anticipates that accident victims will go untended on a highway or that a single school will have to shutter over a shortage of teachers.

Some employees will be forced to work remotely or take leave while they finish their vaccination regimen, given an extension by Brown to do so by Nov. 30. Others, though, face firing for failing to take any step to get vaccinated or assert a legitimate claim to be medically or religiously exempt.

Employees at most agencies who are out of compliance will be placed on administrative leave, said Erica Heartquist, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Health Authority. 

Hospitals have already put hundreds of people on leave. None has publicly warned they would cancel or postpone procedures like last spring when Brown suspended non-urgent surgeries. 

But the mandate could affect the already long waits for care in emergency departments and might even reduce the availability of hospital beds. 

Patients seeking therapy, residential treatment or addiction help, a sector that is already reeling from a workforce crisis, will have even less access to outpatient and residential care.

And state prisons are poised for lockdowns to adjust to missing corrections officers, but many school districts predict normal operations.

We are working on contingency plans right as we speak.

– Mark Bennett, Baker County commissioner

Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett said Thursday that after fears the county wouldn’t be able to provide ambulance services, almost all of the roughly 60 people who provide prehospital medical care in the county have been vaccinated or received exemptions. However, he said most of the volunteers providing care in two rural areas in his county with about 1,700 residents total haven’t been vaccinated. 

The state offered to provide replacements, Bennett said, but it didn’t seem sensible to pay employees who may go weeks without responding to a call. 

“We are working on contingency plans right as we speak,” Bennett said. “However, there could be a delayed response in at least two areas of the county.” 

Mandate marks response to Covid-19 surge

The governor imposed the sweeping mandate out of concern about the fast-spreading Delta variant of the virus, which has sparked the biggest surge in cases, hospitalizations and fatalities since the pandemic emerged in Oregon in February 2020. 

Brown said that vaccination was the only way out. 

“The current struggle with the Delta variant shows that, in order for us to protect ourselves and our community – from this variant and variants that will continue to evolve so long as Covid-19 is circulating widely – it is vital that as many Oregonians as possible get vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said her executive order on the mandate.

Monday’s deadline applies to schools, state agencies, health care settings, correctional facilities and public safety officials. Besides staff, it includes volunteers, contract personnel and students or trainees involved in health care. 

Everyone from medics to pharmacy personnel to long-term care workers and state troopers are affected. 

All together, that includes more than 150,000 people.

According to Oregon Health Authority rules for health care settings and schools, those affected have to have an exemption or be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by the end of day on Monday. That means two weeks since one-shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. 

Medical exemptions have to be signed by a provider, and employers can grant religious exemptions where they determine a worker has a “sincerely held religious belief” barring a Covid-19 vaccination.

State employees get leeway

Though Monday’s deadline was supposed to apply to more than 40,000 state employees, Brown in recent days provided wiggle room.

In agreements with the Service Employees International Union Local 503 (23,700 employees), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75 (3,160 union members) and the Association of Engineering Employees of Oregon (1,120 employees), state negotiators agreed to move the deadline to Nov. 30 for workers to complete the vaccination process. 

Employees have to have their first shot by Monday and then have a second one two weeks before Nov. 30.

Until the deadline, employees can work remotely, if that is possible, or they can use vacation time or go on unpaid leave, based on employer preference. 

After Nov. 30, those who don’t follow through with the second shot could be fired.

State officials also decided to give managers and unclassified staff – nearly 7,160 employees – the same leeway. 

The list of staff with a later deadline is likely to grow. 

As of Friday, Brown’s staff was still negotiating with other unions over conditions related to the mandate, according to one of her spokespeople.

On average, Oregon’s 75 state agencies, commissions or boards report about a 78% vaccination rate among their employees. When exceptions are factored in, the percentage considered in compliance increases to 87%, and it’s possible some vaccinated stragglers will still submit proof they are vaccinated.

But some of the state’s largest agencies, with the most day-to-day interactions with Oregonians, report some of  the lowest vaccination rates.

Just over 80% of employees are fully vaccinated or have an exception at the state Department of Corrections, which manages 13 prisons with 12,000 inmates.

We will do everything we can to ensure operations run normally and safely.

– Jennifer Black, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections

Jennifer Black, the department’s spokeswoman, said the agency is working on contingency plans if short staffing develops.

Some inmate programs or services may be suspended and there could be lockdowns. The situation will vary among prisons, she said. 

“At this time, we don’t know the impact because we don’t know what our staffing will look like,” Black said in a statement. “Thankfully, the numbers are looking better than they did earlier in the week. We will do everything we can to ensure operations run normally and safely.”

Oregon State Police, with 1,270 employees, also reported an 80% rate for vaccinations or exemptions. The department’s public information officer, Capt. Stephanie Bigman, said in an email any unvaccinated employees who are not covered by union bargaining agreements with extended deadlines will be placed on administrative leave beginning at midnight Monday.

If needed, the department will use its emergency operations plan to address staffing shortages, she said. The agency maintains that the plan is exempt from public disclosure.

School districts expect little change

Many school districts report little has changed because of the mandate. All 30,000 Oregon teachers and everyone who works or volunteers in an Oregon school will need to be fully vaccinated.

Schools already have been dealing with staffing shortages from teachers to aides to school bus drivers

In Eugene, no classes were planned for Monday so administrators could continue processing exemption claims and prepare for possible changes including consolidating cafeterias for lack of staff.

Kerry Delf, Eugene School District chief of staff, said about 100 religious exemptions were still being considered last week.

Delf said employees who don’t comply with the mandate face being reassigned to another job with little exposure to people, taking enhanced safety measures or going on unpaid leave. 

Most school districts reported they would put employees who didn’t meet Monday’s requirements on unpaid leave.

The level of vaccinations in Oregon schools isn’t readily available. The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education are not tracking that data, leaving it up to districts to track on their own. 

Last week, the Capital Chronicle emailed 156 school district superintendents and received information on vaccine rates from about 18%. Of those that answered, most districts had 95% or more of staff vaccinated, and the lowest reported was 85%. 

In Roseburg, Superintendent Jared Condon said his district didn’t expect to lose many staff over the vaccine mandates. 

He said several sought the religious exemption, and it was difficult and uncomfortable for the school officials to decide them.

“I think if these forms would have been sent to the Capitol, things might look differently,” he said. 

 

 

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry, who has more than 30 years of journalism experience, is Oregon Capital Chronicle's editor-in-chief. She previously was editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site; reported on health in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.

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