Gov. Kate Brown says health care workers should get vaccinated or face weekly tests for the COVID-19 coronavirus starting Sept. 30.
Brown said Wednesday, Aug. 4, that she has directed the Oregon Health Authority to issue such a rule later this week.
She did so after four Oregon employers — Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health, Oregon Health & Science University and PeaceHealth, which serves Eugene and Springfield — announced they were requiring employees to get vaccinations despite a 1989 law that bars them from doing so as a condition of employment. Legacy Health made its announcement at the same time as the governor's release.
Brown said in a statement that the rapid spread of the delta variant, which has driven up Oregon caseloads, has prompted her action:
"The more contagious delta variant has changed everything.
"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. Protecting our frontline health care workers through vaccination will also enhance the safety of the patients in their care.
"Severe illness from COVID-19 is now largely preventable, and vaccination is clearly our best defense. Vaccination and weekly testing ensure Oregonians can safely access health care and employees can go to work in an environment that maximizes health and safety measures for COVID-19."
The new rule applies broadly to any health care worker with direct or indirect contact with patients or infectious materials. It will allow time for their employers to make the required adjustments, and for employees to get fully vaccinated.
Brown said she is considering similar steps for state employees, but discussion are continuing.
Last week, she announced that face masks were once again required for state employees within state buildings, and also for customers and visitors in those buildings. They include people who have been vaccinated.
Some state offices have reopened on a limited basis. Most were aiming at full reopening by Labor Day, more than 17 months after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Partial state ban
A 1989 state law bars employers from requiring vaccinations of some categories of workers, including health care workers and providers. Police, firefighters, corrections officers and parole and probation officers also are exempt. That law was enacted as part of an overhaul of public health requirements during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
Neither state nor federal law bar other employers from such mandatory requirements. Labor agreements might bar those requirements, but the state Bureau of Labor and Industries says it would be rare for a labor contract to do so.
As recently as July 27, the Oregon Nurses Association resisted a vaccine mandate even as it endorsed vaccinations.
The governor's announcement included this statement from Scott Palmer of ONA:
"This is a reasonable and sensible approach, which respects the individual choices of health care workers while also protecting public health. ONA believes COVID-19 vaccinations are critical to protecting our members, our patients, our families and our communities and we urge all Oregonians who can get vaccinated to do so now.
"ONA is also gratified to note that Oregon's current law provides the state the flexibility necessary to respond to public health emergencies via regulation. ONA is eager to continue our work with hospitals and community groups to encourage vaccinations through a wide range of options including free vaccine clinics, vaccine education, vaccination incentives and community outreach to improve vaccination rates and address the rampant disinformation that is creating uncertainty and fueling vaccine hesitancy. Vaccination is a critical tool to keep Oregonians healthy and safe and Gov. Brown's announcement today will help close the gap in vaccination rates for Oregon's valuable health care workers."
Brown said she is working with lawmakers and others to deal with the issue of mandates during the 2022 session, which opens its 35-day run on Feb. 1.
In the meantime, she said she was encouraging other employers to act on their own. "I am encouraging Oregon cities, counties, businesses, and employers to think creatively, and to implement measures such as paid time off for vaccination, and incentives for employees, in addition to instituting masking requirements and other health and safety measures in the workplace. I am doing the same with the state of Oregon's workforce, and I expect employers to find ways to remove barriers to easy access to vaccination."
What others said
OHSU had announced its plans for mandatory vaccination back on May 27. The final paragraph from its statement:
"Wearing masks and other protective equipment, physically distancing and avoiding large gatherings are essential to preventing infections from spreading, but getting vaccinated is how Oregonians, and the rest of the country, will prevent more infectious variants from developing and bring this pandemic to an end."
Becky Hultberg, chief executive of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, called for a new rule or a change in the law back on July 14:
"As the number of hospitals and health systems requiring COVID-19 vaccination for employees continues to grow across the U.S., here in Oregon we can't even have the conversation.
Ensuring health care workers are vaccinated protects vulnerable patients, visitors, and coworkers. It is unconscionable to leave tools on the table during a global pandemic. It's well past time for state leaders to address this misguided policy."
Hultberg said in reaction to Brown's announcement:
"We support today's action by Gov. Brown, which will require health care workers in Oregon to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested regularly for the virus. With these additional tools we can better respond to this evolving pandemic and provide the safest possible environment for those who depend on us."
Greg Adams, chairman and chief executive of Kaiser Foundation Hospital sand Health Plan Inc., issued this statement on Monday, Aug. 2, from its Oakland, Calif., headquarters:
"Large groups of unvaccinated people are fueling the current increase in cases and 97% to 99% of COVID-19 hospital admissions are unvaccinated patients. Making vaccination mandatory is the most effective way we can protect our people, our patients, and the communities we serve. We encourage all health systems and business and industry leaders across the country to play a role in ending the pandemic by doing the same."
Legacy Health said in its Aug. 4 statement:
"Legacy's unwavering commitment to safety, and the scientifically based recommendations from the CDC, make this the right thing to do. The emergence and high transmissibility of the delta variant, as well as the recent uptick in COVID-19 transmission in health care facilities, compel us to take action to contain this virus. Legacy Health has a moral imperative to protect our patients, our people, and our community."
Link to video statement by Gov. Brown:
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