Multnomah County officials said on Thursday they’ve been forced to exempt deputy sheriffs, parole and probation officers from a countywide vaccination mandate due to changing state health guidance.
The decision makes Multnomah County the second Oregon government entity to exempt law enforcement from its vaccine order. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced on Wednesday the city would not be able to enforce its citywide mandate on the police force due to new guidance from the Oregon Health Authority.
County Chair Deborah Kafoury said on Thursday that she had no choice as “the state has tied our hands.” She called on the state to require vaccinations of local law enforcement, which would allow the county to move forward with their own vaccine mandate that encompasses law enforcement.
“We have asked — and are still asking — the state to require these vaccinations,” Kafoury said in a statement. “The Legislature is having a short session in a matter of days and could change this. We are not giving up.”
The governor’s office said it is not currently considering such a legislative fix. Spokesperson Charles Boyle said they are waiting to see how cities and counties will be impacted by an announcement from President Joe Biden that will require all businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure workers are either fully vaccinated or tested weekly.
The earlier version of the county mandate, announced on Aug. 22, required all county employees be vaccinated by Oct. 18. County officials said they would allow exemptions for people with “approved medical conditions” or “a sincerely held religious belief.”
The confusion around the legality of the city and county’s vaccine mandate started late Friday after the Oregon Health Authority released new guidance saying the governor’s order mandating vaccines for health care workers likely did not apply to police.
That guidance had sent Oregon’s largest city and county both scrambling. In Oregon, local jurisdictions can only issue vaccine mandates for firefighters and police officers if there is already a federal or state rule in place requiring it. Both the city and county felt they got a green light on Aug. 19 when Gov. Kate Brown issued a vaccination mandate for the state’s health care workers. Leaders in both governments felt the governor’s definition of health care workers covered law enforcement, and thus that the city and county could pursue a vaccine mandate for all employees.
But the newest state guidance on the vaccine mandate said police officers were most likely exempt from the mandate. That guidance, which came in the form of a FAQ document, said law enforcement was “probably not” subject to the governor’s orders as providing medical care was “likely not a fundamental part of their job.”
Kafoury said county leaders are considering requiring unvaccinated employees, including law enforcement, to wear N95 masks.
County spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said it’s unclear how the mandate will be impacted by Biden’s new vaccination requirements.