As Oct. 18 vaccination deadline looms, Salem employers report high vaccination rates

Avi Singh draws up a dose of the Pfizer vaccine during a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Oregon State Fairgrounds on Thursday, Jan. 28. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The vast majority of local teachers and school employees have been vaccinated against Covid ahead of a state deadline Monday.

The Salem-Keizer School District said Friday that 88.4% of its 5,551 employees were fully vaccinated against Covid. Another 434 had approved religious exceptions and 26 had approved medical exceptions, giving the district a 96.8% compliance rate.

“We are still accepting and reviewing proof of vaccination and applications for exceptions every day, so the numbers will continue to move,” district spokesman Aaron Harada said.

Among the district’s 2,628 licensed staff, most of whom are teachers, 91.9% were fully vaccinated as of Friday. A total of 168 had religious exceptions approved, and 10 had medical, Harada said, for an overall 98.7% compliance rate.

Oct. 18 is the deadline set by Gov. Kate Brown for Oregon school employees, health care workers and many state employees to be fully vaccinated against Covid to continue working. The mandate covers many of Salem’s largest employers.

Harada said starting Tuesday, any district employees who aren’t fully vaccinated and don’t have an exception approved will be placed on unpaid leave. The district is requiring all employees, even those who work in district offices or other non-school settings, to be vaccinated or seek an exception, he said.

“The district is interested in retaining staff and will work with employees who are in the process of complying with the vaccination requirement to return to work as soon as possible,” he said in an email.

Salem Health has 89% of its 5,200 employees fully vaccinated, spokesperson Lisa Wood said Friday. That’s up from an 84% vaccination rate on Sept. 29.

Among employed and contracted medical providers, the rate is 99.6%. Wood said that figure includes doctors, podiatrists, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, but not registered nurses or medical assistants.

Wood declined to answer questions about exception requests and approvals or staffing impacts from the mandate, saying the health system would share more information following an update to employees on Monday.

Hospital employees who are not fully vaccinated and do not have an exception approved by Monday will be placed on unpaid leave.

“If, at some point prior to January 31, 2022, an employee decides to begin their vaccine protocol and/or complete the appropriate exception requirements, they may have the option to return to work, although their current position will not be held during their leave of absence,” Wood said in an email. “If an employee remains unvaccinated and without an approved medical or religious exception on January 31, 2022, their unpaid leave may end and their employment with Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics may be terminated.”

At Santiam Hospital in Stayton, about 78% of employees were vaccinated before the mandate was announced, spokesperson Lauren Benjamin said. Now, that number stands at 84%.

Benjamin said about 20 hospital employees have chosen unpaid leave, termination or early retirement rather than get vaccinated.

The hospital employs about 550 people, chief medical officer Steve Vets said.

“It is definitely the most contentious and divisive time I’ve ever experienced in a hospital,” said Vets about the mandate. He noted the hospital, like many in Oregon, was already struggling with understaffing.

Vets said he hears several common reasons for opting not to get vaccinated. Some don’t like government authority or being told what to do, and some think Covid won’t affect them.

He said he’s grown weary of trying to convince people the vaccine is safe and effective, but he also struggles with telling good employees they can’t work until they get the vaccine.

“Two months ago, I didn’t have a problem with these people – they were doing their job, they were making a personal choice and I was happy to have them working. Now, because of the mandate, we have a problem with them. There’s a cognitive dissonance there. We’re trying to be as moderate as possible giving people a pathway,” he said.

Legacy Health, which operates Legacy Silverton hospital, has a 95% vaccination rate among all of its 14,000 employees, spokesperson Vicki Guinn said Friday. That’s up from about 85% when the mandate was first announced in August.

Guinn declined to provide specific numbers for employees at the Silverton hospital. She said Legacy received hundreds of requests for vaccine exceptions which were reviewed by ethicists and medical providers.

“We honored very few of those,” she said, though she declined to give a specific number.

As of Oct. 11, Legacy had about 680 employees on administrative leave who had not been fully vaccinated, according to the organization’s website.

Any Legacy employee who starts a vaccine series by Oct. 18 will be able to return to work once fully vaccinated. Those who don’t will be terminated Oct. 19, the website said.

Correction: This article was updated to correct the date Salem-Keizer employees not in compliance will be placed on leave. It is Tuesday, Oct. 19, not Monday, Oct. 18. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

This article was updated to include more current vaccination numbers for Salem-Keizer employees.

We’d like to hear from Salem health care providers and smaller employers about the impacts of the vaccination mandate on your work. Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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