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Health care workers push back over state vaccine mandate, less than a month before deadline

(Update: adding video, new info, comment from plaintiff's attorney)

Say they're being forced 'to choose between their health, their religion, their personal autonomy and their careers'

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – A motion filed Tuesday with the Oregon Court of Appeals by two groups opposed to Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate seeks to block the Oregon Health Authority from enforcing the Oct. 18 deadline that could cost thousands of health care workers their jobs.

The petition is led by Dan Thenell, an attorney with Portland-based Thenell Law Group, who called the mandate a shocking failure.

"I've been in the legal business in Oregon for 25 years, I'm a second-generation Oregonian," Thenell told NewsChannel 21 Wednesday. "It flies in the face of everything I believe this state stands for."

The petition is 92 pages long, filed on behalf of two groups: Oregon Healthcare Workers for Medical Freedom, which has more than 1,200 members who work in health care, and Mandate Free Oregon, made up health care workers, as well as firefighters, first responders and other emergency services personnel.

The groups filed the motion “on an emergency basis,” seeking to stay enforcement of OHA’s temporary administrative order and an Oregon administrative rule because “numerous” health care workers, firefighters and first responders “will suffer severe and irreparable harm” before a full court review could occur.

"Yes, COVID is producing some very significant symptoms, but this is an overreaction and an overreach by the government," Thenell said. "It goes too far and it goes too fast."

The motion says many of the health care workers “work 100% remotely, with no patient contact,” but under the terms of the mandate also face possible termination if they don’t comply.

"I don't think we are prepared for the number of people that are going to be out of work because of this," Thenell said.

Thenell added that he hopes the OHA will revise the mandate and give people more options, but until that happens, health care workers have a clear choice come Oct. 18 -- vaccinate or get fired.

NewsChannel 21 reached out to the OHA for a response to the court filing but representatives said their office does not comment on pending legal action.

Thenell also represented the Oregon Fraternal Order of Police, nine Oregon State Police troopers and a group of firefighters in a lawsuit filed earlier this month in Jefferson County Circuit Court against the state and Gov. Kate Brown, challenging and seeking to block the mandate.

Thenell said Tuesday they are awaiting a hearing on a motion for a temporary restraining order in that case.

As in that lawsuit, the appeals court motion claims the mandate violates the workers’ freedom of expression and religion. It says the mandate does not define “sincerely held religious belief” and allows employers to “evaluate an employee’s religion and the sincerity of an employee’s religious beliefs.”

“The Healthcare Vaccine Mandate is not narrowly tailored to any compelling government interest and thus forces Oregon healthcare workers to choose between their health, their religion, their personal autonomy and their careers,” the filing states.

The Portland attorney also represents more than two dozen health care workers and firefighters around the state who filed two lawsuits last week, in Yamhill and Klamath counties, seeking to overturn the vaccine mandate, OPB reports.

Thenell also represents an OSP trooper in Bend, Zachary Kowing, who was placed on paid administrative leave a few weeks ago for posting a video on Instagram in which he said he will refuse to comply with the governor’s vaccine mandate. He said Tuesday he'd heard nothing new recently from OSP about the matter

But there was some sign of wiggle room on the mandate -- at least, on the deadline -- on Tuesday. About 24,000 state Executive Branch employees represented by Service Employees International Union 503 bargained and got an extra six weeks, to Nov. 30, to be fully vaccinated, Oregon Live/The Oregonian reports.

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus
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Max Goldwasser

Max Goldwasser is a reporter and producer for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Max here.

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.

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