Think Out Loud

Malheur County commissioners declare emergency in response to vaccine mandates

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Sept. 22, 2021 6:26 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Sept. 22

Governor Kate Brown wears an orange traffic safety vest and a mask that has the words "Get covered 2021" printed on it.

Gov. Kate Brown is pictured here, touring a drive-thru mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Portland on April 9, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/ OPB


Malheur County commissioners have passed an emergency declaration for the county in response to Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccination mandate for state workers, healthcare workers and K-12 employees. The chair of the commission, Judge Dan Joyce, says Malheur is not the only one pleading with the governor to provide vaccine mandate exemptions. Joyce says it’s likely that the region will not have any EMTs after Oct. 18, the deadline for those workers to be vaccinated. We talk with him about the emergency situation and his perspective on how the county should approach COVID-19 outbreaks.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. This morning, in a unanimous vote, the Malheur County Commission declared a State of Emergency. They say that the statewide Covid-19 vaccine mandate for people who work in healthcare and emergency services is backfiring. That instead of leading to a vaccinated workforce, it’s causing vaccine wary people to simply leave their vitally important jobs. So the commissioners are asking Governor Kate Brown to rescind the mandate, or else exempt Malheur County and other sparsely populated counties from it. Dan Joyce is a Malheur County Judge, meaning he is the head of the three- person Commission. He joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Judge Dan Joyce: Thank you. Good afternoon to you.

Miller: What led you to push for this emergency declaration in particular?

Joyce: Well, the staffers came to us and said, if we have to do this, we’re leaving and you’re going to be short help. So in effect, the Baker County commissioner, in a meeting in eastern Oregon counties here a few weeks ago, said there will be no coverage from Ontario to Baker because we will not have staff. Likewise, our people told us from Ontario to McDermitt, Nevada on 95 we would have no service. Likewise, from Ontario to Burns, we would have no adequate people because they were not going to go through with this program. We’re not being forced to it. So that’s how it started.

Miller: When you say staffers, what kinds of jobs in particular are you hearing about where the people who have those jobs would rather quit them than get a Covid-19 vaccine?

Joyce: We’re talking about people with the ambulance services, our jail and our 911 centers.  Those are the kinds of instances, where, in fire departments, that we’re concerned about. Concerned that normally you’d have 100 people apply for a job, in our last job application opening, there was three people. When they found out that, I think the reason is, they found out that there weren’t going to be any openings. If they were required, there’d be openings. But they were going to be required to vaccinate and they don’t wanna do it.

Miller: So what kinds of reasons?

Joyce: It’s a crisis, actually.

Miller: What kinds of reasons have you heard from these essential workers for not wanting to get vaccinated?

Joyce: They have no trust in the vaccine.

Miller: What do you mean by that?

Joyce: They don’t trust the vaccine. Period.

Miller: Despite the fact that there have been six billion doses given?

Joyce: Exactly. I’ve been vaccinated. But I also understand being forced to do something against your will, and that’s where they’re coming from.

Miller: I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that in a healthcare setting in particular, having people who are statistically much more likely to get Covid brings an added risk for the people that they are serving. I mean, you were talking about people in a jail or working in an ambulance or other kinds of emergency services or other kinds of healthcare related services. How much concern do you have for the people that these workers would be or will be interacting with?

Joyce: Well, you’ve always got a concern in a situation like that. But when you’re asking people to do something against their will, and that’s really the issue for them, you know? And then,... Okay, so here’s another issue that doesn’t get talked about in this situation. What about the antidotes or the cures? Why are we not doing something for the cure, and why aren’t we putting investment there in that field?

Miller: I’m not sure what you’re talking about in terms of here. There are treatments that there have been major investments in that people, when they get Covid, they often have access to. I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

Joyce: Well, those are the ones we don’t hear about.

Miller: Well, let’s turn back to that in a bit if you want to. But I want to stick with the vaccine mandates, since for now, that is the subject of the emergency declaration. Malheur County...

Joyce: If I could interrupt for just a second here. So we were given an ORS [Oregon Revised Statute] that authorizes the county body of government to declare an emergency exists and to prepare for it, to carry out any activities to prevent, minimize, and respond to recover from such an emergency. So that was the basis, the other basis for having the resolution.

Miller: Right. So, let’s carry this through for a bit. Let me read, actually, read you a statement we got from the Governor’s office. I don’t suppose, have you gotten a direct response yet from the Governor’s office in the last couple hours?

Joyce: No. I don’t know that we got a response when Grant and Harney County asked for an exemption on the population of 50,000 and below. So that’s why we added it to our resolution this morning. And we have not got a response.

Miller: We reached out to them this morning, after the county commission passed your resolution, your emergency declaration. And this is the response we got from Charles Boyle, the spokesperson for the Governor’s Office: ‘The Governor’s goal is to keep our schools, businesses and communities open. Our hospitals are full and our doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers are being stretched beyond their limits. Hospitalizations increased nearly 1,000% between July 9th and their September peak. The vast majority of Oregonians hospitalized for Covid-19 are unvaccinated. People are dying right now, when we have safe, effective and free vaccines readily available. The Governor is responding to a public health crisis. Unvaccinated people in the workplace put themselves and everyone around them at risk for Covid-19, and quite frankly, Covid-19 outbreaks in workplaces across the state are happening right now and are already a disruption to the workforce. Vaccination is the key to putting this pandemic behind us.’ Unquote. That is the full statement we got from the Governor’s office today. So they didn’t specifically say ‘no’ to your request. But it’s essentially, that’s what this reads like. What’s your response to their reasoning?

Joyce: I read it as a ‘No.’

Miller: So, where do you think this leaves you? And I’m curious what the emergency declaration gives you the ability to do. Your main request to the Governor was that she rescind these mandates either for you or for other sparsely populated counties. It seems like she is saying ‘no.’ Where does that leave you?


Joyce: We were asking for it until the period of time when the conditions do not exist.

Miller: Right. Tt seems like she is saying ‘no,’ but I’m trying to still figure out where this leaves you as a county?

Joyce: We’re still in trouble. You know, especially if we don’t have any replacements. And that’s the key. So our request is to exempt us until we have the replacements.

Miller: Yesterday, we learned that the Governor is going to give about 24,000 state workers, people who are represented by a particular public employees union, SEIU, six more weeks to be fully vaccinated. This is after negotiations between the state and that particular union. So workers who are covered by that union, they’re going to have until the end of November instead of the middle of October to become fully vaccinated. I should note that that does not affect the mandates for healthcare workers or K-12 workers because there are separate executive orders. What do you think of that extension?

Joyce: Well, I think every extension is helpful. That would help our counties, too, if we got an extension. I’m not sure that the numbers...

Miller: To what extent? Because it doesn’t seem like vaccine availability is a major issue right now. So I’m wondering what difference six months or six weeks or six years would make if, as you said earlier, the people you’re talking to or hearing from, they don’t even believe this vaccine is safe for them anyway.

Joyce: Well, I hear you there, but I think what to do is give you six months, they’d still be on the job.

Miller: Okay. In other words, it would be a delay for the inevitable. So it would give me longer to have the people stay in their jobs.

Joyce: Yeah. And who knows, you know, some of them might reconsider.

Miller: As I’m sure you know, Malheur County has the lowest vaccination rate of any county in the state. It’s about half that of Lincoln and Benton and Multnomah Counties, which along with a couple others are at the highest rate. Do you want more people in Malheur County to get vaccinated?

Joyce: I recommended that early, when we first started the vaccine program. And I think we probably had one of the best vaccine programs in the state of Oregon. But we also have another issue here. And that’s the border counties. We’re a border county with Idaho. And that plays into, and a lot of our workers are coming from Idaho.

Miller:  What do you think it would take right now to increase the vaccination rate, to not have it be the lowest in the state, but to get more people in your county to get this vaccine?

Joyce: I would assume if there was an absolute guarantee that the people could be assured beyond their doubts that the vaccine was safe and I don’t know if that can be done.

Miller: I guess part of that hinges on what you mean by an absolute guarantee. Basically every public health body in the world is recommending this. I don’t know what more people need.

Joyce: Well, there’s always gonna be people out there that don’t agree. So that’s where we’re at. And but the problem once again, is the replacement.

Miller:  The replace...meaning the people to replace the emergency workers.

Joyce: Yeah, exactly.

Miller: Let me ask you this. It’s... sometimes people talk a big game and they say, I’m not gonna. I’ll do this before you can make me do this. But when it comes down to it, if it’s a question of not having a job, that doesn’t always happen? How sincerely do you think the people you’re hearing from about their willingness to give up a paycheck as opposed to getting a jab that has been given six billion times around the world over the last nine months?

Joyce: The ones I’m talking to, they’re gonna. I’ve been told point blank they’re gonna walk me off the job. So we better cover our bases on our end.

Miller: Right. So, then we get back to this key point that you’ve talked about a couple of times. The replacements, because it doesn’t seem like there are replacements. Meaning, it doesn’t seem like there are a whole bunch of people in Malheur County or neighboring counties who are clamoring for these jobs. So I guess it’s back to the question I asked you earlier, where does that leave you?

Joyce: Yeah, in an emergency, for sure. But it also leaves anybody else that comes through the county in an emergency situation. In other words, be prepared because what are you gonna do?  Air Life needs support on the ground when they come.

Miller: One possibility, is that you could get a megaphone and go to the tallest building in all the cities of Malheur County and yell to everybody, ‘Hey, I got the vaccine. I’m fine. It’s making it way less likely that I’m going to get Covid and way, way, way less likely to be hospitalized or die from it. You should do it too. We need it for you. We need it for our community and we need it so you can actually keep your job and keep us safe.’

Joyce: I’ve already done that.

Miller: You have. Because I got to say it doesn’t feel like that’s the tone you’re taking now. It seems like you seem so understanding about the people who are walking off the job or threatening to. It doesn’t seem like you’re frustrated by them.

Joyce: Well, it’s just the way it is. After we’ve been we’ve been dealing with this for 18 months or 19 months now. Nothing’s really changed in that amount of time. And that’s why I bring up the question on the cure. You know if there’s an antidote, why aren’t we promoting that one too?

Miller: Because there is no antidote or cure. There are treatments that work, some of which are pretty good. And the federal government has spent a lot of money recently, for example, ordering more monoclonal antibodies. But there is no secret cure that the media is not talking about.

Joyce: Okay.

Miller: Dan Joyce. Let’s leave it there. We’re out of time. But I appreciate your time today. Thank you.

Joyce: Go for the cure, Would you?

Miller: Yeah, that would be great. And there are a lot of people who are working on that. But I’ll say it again, there is no secret cure that people in the media or in medicine are not talking about. If there were, we would talk about it. Dan Joyce is a Malheur County Judge, meaning he is the Chief Executive of Malheur County.

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