COVID-19 vaccinations to be required for all Oregon health care workers, school staff – Statesman Journal

Covid 19 Vaccinations To Be Required For All Oregon Health Care Workers School Staff Statesman Journal

As hospitals across Oregon near capacity due to rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday mandated that all health care workers and K-12 school teachers, staff and volunteers receive the coronavirus vaccine.

They have until Oct. 18 or six weeks after full FDA approval of the vaccine, whichever is later. 

Previously, health care workers could submit to weekly testing if they choose not to get vaccinated, but Brown said that option was no longer feasible because of system-wide resource strain. Plus, she said, the state needs every frontline health care worker healthy and available to treat patients.

“We are all at risk right now when our hospitals are full. There may not be a staffed bed for you if you have an unexpected medical emergency,” Brown said. “When ambulances have nowhere to go, people die preventable deaths.”

‘On the verge of collapse’

Between Aug. 9 and Aug. 15, the state reported 546 new COVID-19 hospitalizations, an increase of 140% from the previous week, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

It was the fifth consecutive week of increased hospitalizations.

Get vaccinated:Where to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Marion, Polk counties

New daily cases increased by 53% over the previous week and deaths also increased.

Nearly all of the hospitalizations are of people who are unvaccinated, according to Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority.

During a news conference, Allen described situations where ambulances are waiting to get patients into emergency departments because beds are full, hospitals are converting outpatient rooms to ICU beds, patients line hallways and staffing is critically short.

OHA reported Wednesday that only 6% of hospital ICU beds and 7% of non-ICU beds were still available.

In Region 2, which includes Marion and Polk counties, there were zero ICU beds available and 16 non-ICU beds.

“The numbers grow every day,”  Allen said. “I want to be honest, the situation in Oregon’s hospitals is growing increasingly dire. Our health care system is on the verge of collapse in parts of the state. In coming weeks, every Oregon hospital could be overtopped.”

To help hospitals facing staffing shortages, Brown said, she is deploying the National Guard and “nurse strike teams.” She has also been in contact with the federal government to request additional support, including possibly a field hospital.

Nurses union warns of pushback

Vaccine hesitancy or refusal still exists in the health care field. 

The Oregon Nurses Association said in a statement that while it agrees vaccinations are the most effective way to protect people from COVID-19, it fears some health care workers would rather leave the profession than abide by the mandate.

For a health care system already overwhelmed, the departure of any nurses would add significant pressure.

“Today’s decision to mandate vaccinations for health care workers may ultimately exacerbate an already dangerous staffing crisis in hospitals across the state,” the ONA said.

Several large Oregon healthcare organizations already require vaccines. Kaiser Permanente requires employees either be vaccinated or apply for a medical or religious exemption. Oregon Health and Science University announced earlier this month it would require staff starting in September to be vaccinated or formally decline vaccination.

Salem Health told the Statesman Journal earlier this month it requires its employees to either be vaccinated or sign a form saying they decline to get vaccinated. Those who decline vaccinations are subject to regular COVID-19 testing, hospital spokeswoman Lisa Wood said at the time. 

Salem Health’s overall employee vaccination rate was 75% as of early August, Wood said. For Salem Health’s medical staff employees, the rate is 90%, and for non-employed medical staff it’s 92%, she said. 

Vaccines for teachers, staff, volunteers

For educators and staff, Brown’s mandate will apply to public schools, public charter schools and private and parochial schools.

Schools that fail to follow the rule could be subject to civil penalties.

Teachers were at the front of the line to be able to receive vaccinations earlier this year, but were not required to get them. Students and staff in grades K-12 are required to wear masks in school.

Brown and Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, reiterated Thursday they want students back in schools this year and to be able to learn with minimal coronavirus-related disruptions.

Across the country — and particularly in the South where vaccination numbers are lower and some governors have banned mask requirements — thousands of schoolkids have been forced to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure.

“What we are attempting to do in Oregon is to hold school reliably in person,” Gill said. “That means we need to take every precaution possible. Face coverings and vaccinations for those who are eligible are a part of the picture.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued his own mandate Wednesday requiring vaccines for school staff, though his also applied to state colleges and universities. 

Last week, California announced a similar mandate that covers both public and private schools, but allows testing instead of vaccination. Earlier this month, Hawaii required all Department of Education staffers to disclose their vaccination status or face weekly testing.

Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association, said he encourages districts across the state to work with educators to implement the mandate, as well as continue to use masks, testing and social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“OEA believes that today’s vaccine requirement will help provide stability for our students this fall and will help improve safety in our schools and in our communities,” he said in a statement.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools is awaiting additional guidance from the Oregon Health Authority regarding the process for religious or medical exemptions. The district is providing vaccine clinics for its employees this Friday.

“Thank you for standing together for students, families, and community,” Superintendent Christy Perry wrote in an email to staff Thursday. “We believe this is in the best interest of our students.”

Meanwhile, Oregon public health officials implored those who are still unvaccinated to get the shot or change their behaviors to limit the spread of the Delta variant, including wearing a mask while in public and avoiding non-essential activities.

“If you are unvaccinated, you have never been more vulnerable being sickened by the virus, passing the virus onto your loved ones, getting seriously ill or even dying from COVID-19,” state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said. “If you are unvaccinated, you are risking the health of your family, your loved ones and everyone you encounter while infected.”

Statesman Journal reporter Natalie Pate contributed to this report.

Reporter Connor Radnovich covers the Oregon Legislature and state government. Contact him at cradnovich@statesmanjournal.com or 503-399-6864, or follow him on Twitter at @CDRadnovich.

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