Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks during the June 30, 2021, press conference where she declared an end to the state's mask mandate.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks during the June 30, 2021, press conference where she declared an end to the state's mask mandate.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff

Oregon health care workers will need to get vaccinated for COVID-19 or face weekly tests, under a rule Gov. Kate Brown plans to implement in late September.

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As an alarming rise in case numbers and hospitalizations threatens to overwhelm public health departments and local hospitals, Brown announced Wednesday she’s directed the Oregon Health Authority to create new rules designed to apply pressure on health care workers. They can either get vaccinated by Sept. 30 or face frequent tests for the virus.

“The more contagious Delta variant has changed everything,” Brown said in a press release. “This new safety measure is necessary to stop Delta from causing severe illness among our first line of defense: our doctors, nurses, medical students, and frontline health care workers.”

The new rule falls short of what the state’s largest hospital association had pushed for: a rule or regulation giving individual health systems the authority to mandate the covid-19 vaccination if they chose. That would have brought Oregon in line with most other states.

But it got a nod of approval from the hospitals regardless; the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, the Oregon Nurses Association, and the Oregon Health Care Association, which represents the long-term care industry all released statements in support of the new policy.

“With these additional tools we can better respond to this evolving pandemic and provide the safest possible environment for those who depend on us,” said Becky Hultberg, President and CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Care Systems.

“This is a reasonable and sensible approach which respects the individual choices of health care workers while also protecting public health,” said Scott Palmer, with the Oregon Nurses Association.

The forthcoming rules resemble testing requirements that President Joe Biden and California Gov. Gavin Newsom put in place for federal and state workers amid COVID-19’s resurgence. But rather than targeting all state or federal workers, Brown is limiting her focus to staffers in health care settings “who have direct or indirect contact with patients or infectious materials.”

Brown’s office is still considering vaccination and testing requirements for state workers, the release said. The governor, who has emphasized more localized decision making over state mandates in recent weeks, called on private and public employers around the state to implement masking requirements and “facilitate their employees’ access to vaccines” with policies like paid time off for vaccinations and other incentives.

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While vaccine mandates are allowed as a condition of employment in most sectors, Oregon law prohibits health care providers from making them a requirement of employment, unless the immunizations are required by state or federal rules. The governor’s office said Brown plans to “address” that prohibition when lawmakers meet early next year.

Minutes after the governor’s announcement, the Legacy Health System said it would require all its employees, contractors, and volunteers to be vaccinated “as permitted by law.”

Other health systems didn’t wait for the governor’s announcement. In May, OHSU said it was developing a policy to require vaccination for everyone on its campus. That policy will require staff, students, and contractors to show proof of vaccination or formally decline vaccination. Those who decline will be asked to complete an education course and take additional safety measures.

Kaiser Permanente announced Monday it will mandate vaccines for all employees, while allowing exemptions on religious or health grounds. The PeaceHealth medical system announced Tuesday that all its caregivers will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit a qualifying medical exemption. Those who do not may be re-assigned away from patient care.

Health systems around the state have said they support a change in state law, while the Oregon Nurses Association has warned that if vaccine mandates are not part of contract negotiations, it could prompt nurses to resign at a time when morale is low and hospitals and long term care facilities are already short-staffed.

The stepped up requirements come as COVID-19 patients are being hospitalized at a concerning rate. As of Wednesday, 393 people were hospitalized with the virus in the state, 95 more people than last Friday, and 14 more than were hospitalized just the day before.

State health officials last week issued modeling results that suggested nearly 100 people could be hospitalized a day by mid-August if steps aren’t taken to contain spread of the delta variant. That same modeling suggested daily case numbers could swell to nearly 1,200 during the same time frame. The state reported 1,575 new cases on Tuesday.

The state had 393 available non-intensive care unit beds as of Wednesday morning, and 110 free ICU beds.

Despite the worrisome trends, and calls by her own health advisors for people to get vaccinated as soon as possible, the new requirements for health care workers will not kick in until Sept. 30. Brown’s office said that eight week delay will “give employers time to prepare for implementation, and will give currently unvaccinated health care workers time to become fully vaccinated.”

Vaccination rates for health care workers are higher than rates for the general population, but they vary wildly by region, ranging from a low of 43% in Harney County to a high of 81% in Washington County.

Staff vaccinations are particularly critical for long term care facilities, whose residents accounted for about half of the deaths during the first year of the pandemic.

Approximately 68% of staff in long term care in Oregon have been vaccinated — that’s about 10% higher than the national average, according to the Oregon Health Care Association, which represents the industry.

In Oregon, 70% of the overall health care workforce had been vaccinated as of July 3rd. The rates vary by profession, with 87% of doctors vaccinated, 74% of registered nurses, and 57% of certified nursing assistants.

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