All Oregon health care workers, as well as K-12 school employees and volunteers, will be required to get fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus to keep their jobs, Gov. Kate Brown announced on Thursday. But they will have some time to get their shots before the rules go into effect.
“We must proactively implement solutions right now,” Brown said in remarks delivered Thursday morning. “We need every single frontline health care worker healthy and available to treat patients. Toward that end, Oregon’s vaccination requirement for health care workers will no longer have a testing alternative. Health care workers will be required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after full [Food and Drug Administration] approval, whichever is later.”
“Oregon schools are opening their doors for full-time in-person instruction over the next few weeks. I know many parents are anxious about sending their children back to school and back to the school buildings,” Brown said. “We’ve seen school districts in the South being inundated by COVID-19 with thousands of students in quarantine because they opened without robust safety measures.”
Brown and her top health advisers used Thursday’s media briefing to call on all Oregonians to help curb the surge of cases, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.
Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen warned that the situation in Oregon hospitals has become “increasingly dire.” He asked unvaccinated people to avoid any non-essential activities.
“It’s that simple. It’s that urgent,” Allen said at the news conference.
The governor emphasized that masks will also remain part of the state’s strategy to combat the spread of the coronavirus at a time when infections are surging, especially in schools.
“Because children under 12 are still not vaccinated, masks are a critical tool for preventing our children from getting sick at school,” Brown said.
There are more children hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oregon than at any point in the pandemic. They’re also making up a larger proportion of the total cases, at 12.7%. And despite the availability of vaccines, more cases are spreading in 12- to17-year-olds than any other group of children.
Brown sidestepped giving a direct answer when asked if she might mandate vaccines for school children older than 12 once the COVID-19 vaccines receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. “All options remain on the table,” she said.
Thursday’s announcement of impending vaccine mandates was met with mixed responses across Oregon.
The statewide teachers union, the Oregon Education Association, issued a statement in support of the plan.
“OEA believes that today’s vaccine requirement will help provide stability for our students this fall and will help improve safety in our schools,” OEA president Reed Scott-Schwalbach said in a statement. “The science is clear. Vaccines, coupled with other proven public health mitigation strategies, are the best way to ensure our schools stay open and are a safe place for students to learn and for educators to teach.”
The state’s largest nurses union warned in a statement that the governor’s mandate is likely to result in a boost in vaccination rates, but also will prompt some health care workers to leave the profession because they are “deeply opposed to vaccine mandates.”
The Oregon Nurses Association said the vaccination requirement will “put additional pressure on an already dangerous nurse staffing crisis in Oregon.”
The ONA, while encouraging nurses and hospital staff to get vaccinated, has long stood against mandatory vaccinations. The ONA “opposes requiring influenza vaccinations of nurses and other health care workers as a condition of employment,” reads an ONA statement on influenza vaccinations.
The ONA was critical in pushing for an Oregon state law that exempts health care workers from employer-mandated vaccinations and has repeatedly issued statements in support of the law. The American Nurses Association, the parent union for the ONA, has come out in support of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers.
Brown’s announcement comes at a time when hospital beds are filling up with COVID-19 patients, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated. Oregon Health & Science University has forecast a dire shortage of medical facilities across the state if infection trends continue. By Labor Day, Oregon will have 400 to 500 fewer staffed hospital beds than patients require, OHSU officials forecast Wednesday.
“The fifth wave of the pandemic in Oregon remains much more severe than previous surges,” Peter Graven, lead data scientist in OHSU’s business intelligence unit, said in a written statement. “Every action to flatten the curve will help us avoid overwhelming our hospitals and ensure all Oregonians have access to medical care when they need it.”
As of Thursday, more than 845 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in Oregon. A third of the state’s intensive care capacity is taken up by COVID-19 patients, according to OHSU.
Last week, Brown reinstated a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces. This week she is bringing in the National Guard to help hospital workers.
In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Wednesday that anybody working in a state’s schools must be vaccinated.
Oregon’s largest school district, Portland Public Schools, has also announced a vaccine requirement for its employees.
Oregon’s hospitals, which have long asked for the ability to require vaccinations for their employees, are already moving to accommodate the governor’s new vaccine mandate, some far ahead of her schedule.
An email obtained by OPB and sent to PeaceHealth executives and managers Wednesday outlined a change to the hospital’s vaccination policy, stating that “the latest data have led to a clinical determination that contact between unvaccinated caregivers and patients, caregivers, or other community members poses an unacceptable health and safety risk.”
Starting Aug. 31, unvaccinated employees — even those with approved exemptions — will not be able to work inside PeaceHealth facilities. Instead, they will need to see if their duties can be done entirely remotely, or take a leave of absence.
Unvaccinated caregivers without an approved exemption will be placed on administrative leave.
The ONA said it’s the threat of unemployment, in particular, that has them opposing Oregon’s new vaccination mandate for health care workers.
Watch Thursday’s press conference with Brown and Oregon officials: