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C.O. schools, nurses worry Gov. Brown’s vaccine mandate could cost them crucial staff

(Update: Adding video; governor's aide says mandate doesn't violate state law; Redmond, Crook County schools react)

St. Charles official details crisis; deadline is Oct. 18 or 6 weeks after vaccines' full FDA approval, whichever is later

PORTLAND, Ore. (KTVZ) — Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday that all health care and school workers will have to be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after full FDA approval of the vaccines, whichever is later, in an attempt to curb the sharp surge in cases of the COVID-19 delta variant that has led to record hospitalizations.

The governor said the goals are to address Oregon’s hospital crisis, and to help keep students safe in the upcoming school year and minimize disruptions to in-person instruction. But some health care and school representatives said requiring vaccinations could actually make things worse, prompting some nurses, teachers and staff to quit over the issue.

The key announcements:

• Oregon’s vaccination requirement for health care workers will no longer have a testing alternative. Health care workers will be required to be fully vaccinated by October 18 or six weeks after full FDA approval, whichever is later.

• All teachers, educators, support staff, and volunteers in K-12 schools will be required to be fully vaccinated by October 18 or six weeks after full FDA approval, whichever is later.

In both cases, health care workers and educators who are not yet vaccinated are urged to speak with their doctor or primary care provider to get their remaining questions about vaccination answered immediately, so they can begin the vaccination process in time to meet the new requirements.

"There are simply not enough resources to stand up weekly testing systems, while also responding to the current crisis," Brown said.

Media reports have indicated the Food and Drug Administration could issue full approval of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine by early September.

With nearly 850 Oregonians hospitalized with COVID-19 as of now and 226 in the ICUs, some hospital regions are starting the day with two – or no – ICU beds available, Brown said, adding that the “overwhelming number of those hospitalized or who are dying are unvaccinated.”

“This isn’t just about beds. It about having enough trained health care professionals to treat patients,” she said. “There may not be a bed for you, if you have an unexpected medical emergency. When ambulances have nowhere to go, people die preventable deaths.”

In the case of educators, the governor outlined the importance of masks and staff vaccinations to protect students: because children under 12 are still not yet eligible for vaccination, masks are a critical mitigation measure to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Ensuring all the adults around students are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 adds another layer of protection for students as well.

“As always in Oregon, we are following science in implementing health and safety protocols,” Brown said. “We are still learning about the delta variant, but we know from experience that when schools open with the proper safety protocols in place, the risk of transmission is low.”

“Masks are a critical tool to prevent our kids from getting sick in school,” said Brown, who previously mandated masks be worn indoors by all school students and staff, with some exceptions, such as certain activities. “Just as important is ensuring all adults around them are fully vaccinated.”

“There are those who would disagree with the actions I’m taking today,” Brown said. “But schools are opening across the state in coming weeks. COVID-19 poses a threat to our kids, and our kids need to be protected, and they need to be in school. And that's why I'm willing to take the heat on this decision."

Some observers have noted that a 1989 state law bars health care employers from requiring vaccines as a work condition. But Charles Boyle, an aide to the governor, pointed out that the statute in question (ORS 433.416) lists an exception -- "unless such immunization is otherwise required by federal or state law, rule or regulation."

"The Oregon Health Authority has the authority to adopt rules for the control of communicable diseases," Boyle told NewsChannel 21. "Because a state regulation -- in this case, an OHA rule -- will require vaccination, (the statute) does not apply."

The governor also outlined the steps Oregon is taking to support hospitals during the ongoing surge in cases and hospitalizations, including deploying the National Guard and nurse strike teams, establishing temporary decompression units to free up bed space, and removing barriers to discharging patients who no longer require hospital-level care.

Oregon has also made requests to FEMA and the Biden-Harris administration for additional federal resources and support. The governor announced she has formed a Hospital Crisis Prevention and Response group, consisting of health care stakeholders to problem-solve in real time and suggest new measures to aid health care workers and hospitals during the ongoing hospital crisis.

Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen said, “The situation in Oregon’s hospitals is growing increasingly dire,” with the system “in danger of collapse. In coming weeks, every hospital could be over-topped” by more patients than it can safely treat. He noted over 200 patients are being boarded in hospitals’ emergency departments, waiting for a bed, as “staffing is critically short.”

“We’re not at that grim point yet, but we don’t act to stem the crushing influx of unvaccinated patients with COVID-19, some might have to make heart-wrenching triage decisions about whom they can save, and whom they cannot,” Allen said.

He said FEMA has provided some good news, as it will send under contract 24 EMT paramedics to support six Oregon hospital emergency departments, including three each at St. Charles Bend and Redmond.

St. Charles' Absalon talks of 'unimaginable' crisis

Dr. Jeff Absalon, St. Charles’ chief physician officer, also spoke at length during the news conference about the situation his and other hospitals are facing.

“I can’t overstate this: What we’re going through right now is unimaginable,” Absalon said. “We are overwhelmed, and this is really a dire situation. We have 62 (COVID-19) patients this morning, the most ever (topping the record late last year by one), and are approaching 30% of acute care beds.”

“We are at capacity or over-capacity at hospitals throughout the state,” he said, due to the delta variant which is not only far more contagious but results in more serious illness.

“We’ve had to cancel or postpone close to 3,000 surgeries,” Absalon said. “These are not cosmetic. They are very necessary,” for people with cancer, heart disease or other serious conditions, needing procedures “necessary to preserve life and function.”

“We’re rationing care,” he said. “Only patients with the most severe needs are getting care.”

While Southern Oregon hospitals are in the most dire straits (and St. Charles has sent those hospitals some ventilators), Absalon said, “We’re not far behind them in Central Oregon, other parts of the state.”

The staffing issues are immense, he said: “In some cases, a single nurse is taking care of as many as 10 patients.” Eighteen months into the pandemic, “front-line workers are exhausted. They’re burned out.”

“What scares me the most about this – if someone gets in an accident, has a heart attack and needs acute care, they may not get the care as timely as normal,” he said.

Absalon said St. Charles has 800 open positions, close to 200 of them nursing roles, and has about 100 traveling nurses helping out now and “looking to get more.”

The 58-year-old doctor said he was in the ICU a few days ago after a patient 10 years younger than him passed away. “Our nurses had tears in their eyes, but they had to get right back to work, to care for the next patient. We’ve also had family members have to say good-bye through a glass door, or on an iPad.”

“Some don’t believe in (COVID-19), even after they’ve been diagnosed,” Absalon said. “Others didn’t -- until they were gasping for their last breath of air, and became believers,” then telling their loved ones they should get vaccinated.

As for masks, Absalon said, “This is not political. The mask can and will save lives. It’s incredibly important. I’d urge people to avoid crowds, even in outdoor environments,” as the delta variant is “much more transmissible, because viruses evolve.”

Brown said state workers could face disciplinary action, up to and including termination. if they refuse to be vaccinated.

As for school districts, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill answered one reporter by saying while there could be civil penalties against school districts that don’t follow OHA’s statutory authorities, the state won’t threaten to withhold funding for such actions.

“We want our staff in front of our children, in safe and healthy ways,” Gill said. “We’re not going to take any action that would have any side-effects of closing school.”

Brown said substitute teachers are covered in the mandate, but asked about higher education and child care facilities, the governor said, “All the options are on the table, and we’re having those conversations.”

When another reporter asked about whether Oregonians who refuse vaccinations and contract COVID-19 could be prioritized lower for care, Brown asked Absalon to respond first. “That’s a tough one,” he said, “At this point in time, that’s not happening in this state.”

But Sidelinger said, “We won’t discriminate against people for the choices they made.” When criteria is set, if care must be prioritized in a crisis situation, he promised, “It won’t come down to whether someone was vaccinated or not. That’s an easy way out.”

Asked if students eligible for vaccines will be mandated to get them, after FDA approval, Brown repeated, “All options are on the table.”

Crook County School District spokesman Jason Carr says the state's move could worsen employee shortages for health care and education.

"There are certainly staff members who have very strong convictions about government telling them they have to have a vaccine in order to work somewhere," Carr said. "So we certainly anticipate that some employees will choose to go elsewhere."

Redmond School District statement:

"The Redmond School District was surprised by the governor’s announcement today. The Oregon Health Authority has not yet released the rule regarding mandatory vaccination for all staff, which we need to have in hand in order to answer our staff’s questions and concerns. We still have a lot of questions, but the top priority for all of us is providing a high-quality, in-person education for our students. We have urged our staff not to make any decisions about their employment until we’ve had a chance to look over the guidance, but we will work with our associations to deal with this, while keeping kids and their safety at the forefront of all our minds." 


Oregon Education Association Supports Governor Brown’s New Vaccine Mandate, Urges Communities to Follow Public Health Recommendations to Ensure Stability in the School Year

PORTLAND, OR – Following Governor Kate Brown’s announcement that all educators and volunteers in Oregon’s K-12 schools will be required to fully vaccinate by October 18 or six weeks after full FDA approval of the COVID-19 vaccine, Oregon Education Association (OEA) President Reed Scott-Schwalbach released the following statement:

“As we have said from the beginning of this pandemic, nobody wants to get students safely back into the classroom more than Oregon’s educators. While many Oregonians were hopeful that this summer marked the end of the pandemic, it has become increasingly clear that the worst of COVID-19 is not yet behind us. Fueled by the Delta variant, COVID cases in Oregon have skyrocketed to levels that we have not yet witnessed in our state, creating another wave in our ongoing public health crisis.

“OEA believes that today’s vaccine requirement will help provide stability for our students this fall and will help improve safety in our schools and in our communities. The science on this issue is clear. Vaccines, coupled with other proven public health mitigation strategies, are the best way to ensure our schools stay open and are a safe place for students to learn and for educators to teach.

“We urge districts throughout the state to work collaboratively with educators on how this mandate is implemented at the local level and to continue efforts to maintain additional public health mitigation strategies such as the use of personal protective equipment, frequent testing, social distancing, ensuring proper ventilation and frequent disinfecting in our public schools.”


Oregon Nurses Association Statement on New Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Rule For Health Care Workers

(Portland, Ore.) - Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s announcement today of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for nurses and other front-line health care workers will likely increase vaccination rates among those workers but will also put additional pressure on an already dangerous nurse staffing crisis in Oregon.

The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) knows that vaccines are the most important tool for protecting our members, their patients and families, and our communities from the ongoing spread of COVID-19. We know Oregon’s registered nurses and nurse practitioners have already achieved a high rate of vaccination. We also know that some health care workers are deeply opposed to vaccine mandates; so deeply that some will leave the profession before accepting a mandate.

Governor Brown’s previous rule that required weekly testing with a waiver for health care workers who show proof of vaccination was a reasonable compromise that encouraged vaccination while protecting public health. Today’s decision to mandate vaccinations for health care workers may ultimately exacerbate an already dangerous staffing crisis in hospitals across the state.  

ONA calls upon all stakeholders to join us in taking urgent, innovative steps to address this crisis now. We call on hospitals and health systems to focus on nurse retention and recruitment, invest in health care workers serving on the frontlines and open up a space at the decision-making table so they can hear from frontline nurses and caregivers. We must work together to protect our communities during this crisis.

In addition, ONA-represented facilities must bargain immediately on the impacts of this change to the conditions of employment as required by law. ONA is already at the bargaining table in some of our represented facilities, and we will demand to bargain with all our represented facilities on the wide and varied impacts of this change.

ONA believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the deep fractures in our health care system.

Lynda Pond, RN, ONA President said, “For decades, hospitals have cut corners and failed to invest in nursing staff. People across the state are now bearing the full burden of these failed policies. This is about more than vaccine mandates: this is about a legacy of false promises and failures on the part of hospitals who put more value on their profitability than they do on protecting patients, providing safe staffing, or ensuring nurse retention.” 

The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) is Oregon's largest and most influential nursing organization. We are a professional association and labor union which represents 15,000 nurses and allied health workers throughout the state. Our mission is to advocate for nursing, quality health care and healthy communities. For more information visit: www.OregonRN.org.

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Leslie Cano

Leslie Cano is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Leslie here.

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