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Health care workers, school staff, first responders must receive COVID vaccine to stay employed

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Health care workers, school staff and first responders must receive COVID vaccine by Oct. 18 to stay employed.

As the Oct. 18 COVID vaccination deadline for health care workers and school staff nears, multiple Crook County entities are facing an anticipated impact.

What that impact will be varies by organization, but what is known for sure is that by next Monday all health care workers will be required to be fully vaccinated as well as all teachers, educators, support staff and volunteers in K-12 schools. People can apply for a medical or religious exemption. The state mandates were announced by Gov. Kate Brown in August amid a COVID surge fueled by the delta variant.

Some entities are approaching the deadline without a clear idea how the mandate will impact service. According to a recent media report, nearly 90% of St. Charles Health System workers are fully vaccinated, however the organization does not yet know what this will mean for the Oct. 18 deadline and beyond.

"We're not going to be prepared to speak to the impact of the mandate until after Oct. 18," said St. Charles spokesperson Lisa Goodman. "As we're continuing to review applications for medical and religious exceptions, we won't have a final number of exceptions granted (and accommodations made) until that time."

Matt Smith, fire chief for Crook County Fire and Rescue (CCFR), said the mandate has had an impact on staffing, but full extent of the impact is still unknown.

"The mandate affects health workers. Those workers are anyone who provides any type of patient care, including talking with patients," Smith said, "so it's not just our licensed health care providers, it is all of our responders."

Smith said that most of the attrition so far has been felt in CCFR's resident volunteer program, since the mandate applies not only to employees but volunteers and interns.

"That has had an immediate effect," he said. "I am hopeful that we will be able to retain all of our career employees."

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that other fire departments throughout Oregon are dealing with the same challenges, which makes mutual aid difficult to find.

"Right now, we are figuring out how much that (staff loss impact) is and how we are going to mitigate it," Smith said. "The fire service and EMS is one that deals with what they have, so that is exactly what we are going to do."

The Crook County Sheriff's Office (CCSO) raised concerns last month about the mandate and an anticipated impact to its jail staff. The state mandate did not apply to the staff of state prisons but did appear applicable to city or county jail staff.

Because as many as 17 CCSO personnel had said they would consider voluntarily terminating their service with the county instead of getting vaccinated, the Crook County Court sent a declaration of emergency to the State of Oregon seeking a rule change that would exempt county jail staff from the mandate. It appears the rules have since been changed.

"Since the OHA (Oregon Health Authority) changed the guidelines affecting jails, I don't expect any impact from the deadline," said Sheriff John Gautney. "The new guidelines from OHA exempted corrections deputies unless they are directly assigned to a health care setting."

School staff and volunteers join health care workers on the list of groups affected by the state mandate. Crook County School District Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson said they have recently worked during the past month to ascertain every employee's intention. So far, the results appear promising.

"We are down to having only eight employees who have not yet attested one of the three pathways, so we are good to go on the 18th," she said. "We have posted and hired for anyone who has notified us they will not be filing an exception or attained a vaccine."

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