Oregon’s rural counties on their own if Covid vaccine mandate causes staff shortages

Jess Tolman, the chief of Vale Fire and Ambulance, is warning of service impairments if the state’s vaccine mandate remains in place. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

SALEM – Rural counties that fear first responders will quit in bulk ahead of a mid-October vaccine mandate need to come up with their own solutions instead of relying on the state, according to state officials.

Several rural counties have already declared emergencies based on their conclusion that firefighters, paramedics, teachers and health care workers will resign by Oct. 18 instead of getting vaccinated for COVID-19. In central Oregon, Jefferson County emergency manager David Pond, a sergeant with the sheriff’s office, estimates only 50% of the county employees subject to vaccination requirements have received vaccines. That number may tick up slightly before Oct. 18, but he said he still expects close to half of the county’s first responders will choose to be fired or resign rather than comply with vaccine mandates. 

“On our best day, with nobody on vacation, nobody sick and a full staff, we’re still a really busy office,” he said. “If we had to work in a 50% capacity, people are going to wait a long time for their services, and some of those services may be critically important to you as someone calling 911.” 

After Jefferson County’s commissioners declared an emergency in early September, Pond shared it with the state Office of Emergency Management. He heard back that Jefferson County, and the others warning of impending staffing shortages, needed to prepare themselves. 

“It’s not like some natural disaster happens that you didn’t know what’s going to happen today,” Pond said. “This isn’t something that’s all of a sudden, bam, deal with it. It’s ‘Hey, this is coming, here’s your deadline, figure it out,’ and by the way this is being caused by human political action causing disruption to your first responder services in Jefferson County.” 

The state Office of Emergency Management maintains that cities and counties are responsible under law to provide emergency services for their citizens, and the state should only step in when local governments are overwhelmed. Spokeswoman Chris Crabb wrote in an email that the office will evaluate requests for help from local governments, but they should try first to solve their own problems. 

“We expect divisions of local government to maintain their statutory responsibilities, initiate continuity of operations plans that address staffing shortfalls and the prioritization of critical services, and leverage resources available through mutual aid and the private sector before elevating requests for assistance to the state,” Crabb wrote. 

If cities or counties become overwhelmed, they’ll reach out to the agency’s Oregon Emergency Response System to request state or federal assistance, she said. The agency prioritizes requests related to saving lives. 

Officials at the Association of Oregon Counties declined an interview and deferred to individual counties. Counties that have passed states of emergency used nearly identical language, though some referred to specific concerns. 

For example, Baker County’s Sept. 22 resolution declares that the county’s ambulance service area will be unable to provide pre-hospital care along Interstate 84, five state highways and the cities and unincorporated areas in the county. The declaration also states that the county’s only hospital, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center, will be unable to provide care, though the local Argus Observer reported that the hospital wasn’t consulted for that resolution and asked for a retraction. 

Harney County Judge Pete Runnels said his county is already struggling with COVID-19 cases. With larger hospitals in Bend and Idaho unable to take patients, the Harney District Hospital is sending people home if their symptoms aren’t as bad as other patients.

Runnels, who has been a proponent of the vaccines and faced sharp local criticism for it, said he anticipates more staffing shortages if health care workers and first responders must choose between vaccines and losing their jobs. While he and others are trying to talk recalcitrant workers into receiving vaccinations, the local hospital said in a recent memo that it stood to lose about half its staff to mandates.

Runnels said vaccine opponents remain staunch in their opposition. 

“We have one ambulance service, and we won’t be able to man that properly,” he said. “So you’re 130 miles away from another ambulance service. If you’re in the southern part of Harney County, you’re 230 miles away. So if you’re in a car accident or have a medical emergency, you’ve got an issue.” 

Harney County is larger than nine U.S. states but has one of the smallest populations in Oregon, with slightly more than 7,000 residents spread across more than 10,200 square miles. Only about half live in the incorporated cities of Burns and Hines. 

That makes planning for a potential staffing shortage more difficult, Runnels said. Harney County hasn’t yet voted to declare a state of emergency, but commissioners asked staff to draft a resolution during their most recent meeting. 

“Remember where we’re at and how far away we are from anybody else,” he said. “We can’t contract to somebody else; they’re not close enough. There’s not a lot of contingency plans. We need the state to step up and provide the National Guard or whoever can come out and assist.”

Gov. Kate Brown already deployed hundreds of Oregon National Guard members to assist hospitals with COVID-19 surges in the late summer, but it’s unclear whether they’ll be on hand to assist with any staffing shortages caused by vaccine mandates. Crabb deferred to the state Military Department, and a spokesman did not return a request for comment. 

A Baker County spokeswoman said the county is concerned it won’t have an adequate workforce after mid-October, but that it was too early to elaborate. Jackson County officials did not return phone calls or respond to emailed questions about their emergency declarations and subsequent planning. 

Yamhill County Commission Chair Mary Starrett, who spearheaded her county’s emergency resolution, said in an email that she was trying to get ahead of potential staffing shortages.

“Basically we’re saying that our (Office of Emergency Management) is tasked with providing resources in the event of an emergency and they will determine what those resources might entail depending on the needs that present themselves,” she wrote. “I’m sorry I can’t be more specific; we’re all in uncharted territory.”

Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla, the sole Democrat on the board and a candidate for governor, voted against the county’s resolution. Kulla said he has yet to see any evidence that Yamhill County will lose significant numbers of emergency responders or teachers because of the vaccine mandate. He doesn’t think his Republican colleagues were addressing an impending emergency.

“It’s simply because it’s another avenue for pushing back against the governor’s mandates around vaccines and Covid,” he said. 

Kulla shared copies of emails Starrett exchanged with local school superintendents and the local hospital inquiring about potential staffing shortages. The Willamina School District wrote that it expected two or three employees out of more than 110 would be ineligible to work after Oct. 18, the Newberg School District said a “handful” of employees would lose their jobs and the Amity School District superintendent said he lost one employee because of the mandate.

The county’s emergency manager, meanwhile, said no agencies or health providers contacted him with concerns about staffing shortages. Even if first responders or health care workers do quit, Kulla said the county has more than $10 million it can use to hire temporary staff, and declining COVID-19 numbers in California could make it easier to lure traveling nurses or doctors. 

Starrett responded that losing even a few teachers, doctors, nurses or firefighters will have a significant effect on services.

“The loss of one teacher means an entire class of students will be impacted,” she said. “Lose a nurse from already short- staffed hospitals, and it means loss of hospital bed capacity. Firefighters in smaller districts rely on volunteers, and many of them have quit or signaled their intention to quit as a result of the mandate.”

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said in an emailed statement that Brown’s mandate responds to a public health crisis and that outbreaks are already disrupting the workforce. The vaccine requirements aim to ensure as many Oregonians as possible are vaccinated, he said. 

“If critical first responders are quarantined or hospitalized for COVID-19, who will be left to respond to emergencies in rural communities?” Boyle asked. 

Brown’s orders covered health care workers, school staff and state employees, and the Oregon Health Authority interpreted the mandate as likely not applying to city police officers or county sheriff’s deputies. While police officers may have medical training, providing medical care likely isn’t a fundamental part of their job and therefore the mandate doesn’t apply, the agency determined. 

State troopers, however, are state employees and subject to a vaccine mandate. Nearly three dozen officers are now suing Brown over the vaccine mandate, with court arguments set to begin in early October.

Oregon State Police Capt. Stephanie Bigman, an agency spokeswoman, said the agency would rely on its Emergency Operations Plan to deal with any large loss of troopers. She declined to share a copy of that plan without a public records request that typically would take several weeks to process. 

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