Dr. Katherine Landen, emergency department medical director at Salem Hospital, displays her employee badge after receiving Salem's first Covid vaccine on Dec. 17 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Oregon health care providers must prove they’re vaccinated against Covid or be tested for the virus weekly starting Sept. 30, Gov. Kate Brown said Wednesday.

It’s the latest regulation the governor has issued as the number of Oregonians contracting Covid and being hospitalized with the virus has skyrocketed in recent weeks. Nearly all those hospitalized with Covid in the Salem area and in Oregon have not been vaccinated against Covid, state and local health officials have said.

Brown said in a news release the Oregon Health Authority will issue specific regulations later this week.

“The new rule applies broadly to personnel in health care settings who have direct or indirect contact with patients or infectious materials. The governor’s office continues to look at additional health and safety options to protect Oregonians against the highly contagious Delta variant, including vaccination and testing policies for state workers, with conversations continuing with stakeholders about how similar protective measures can be implemented in various state workplaces,” the governor’s office said in a statement.

Salem Health has already implemented a similar policy for employees and is tracking vaccination rates among its staff, spokeswoman Lisa Wood said. That policy went into effect last week.

Employees must either get vaccinated against Covid or fill out a form saying they decline to do so. Those who decline will be tested regularly for Covid, Wood said.

As of Aug. 3, 90% Salem Health medical providers and 75% of all employees had been vaccinated against Covid, Wood said.

The vaccination rate was slightly higher among outside medical providers, who aren’t employed by Salem Health but work in its hospitals under contracts. Wood said 92% of those medical providers had been vaccinated against Covid.

As of July 3, about 70% of all Oregon health care workers were vaccinated against Covid, according to Oregon Health Authority data, a rate slightly higher than the general population. Marion County reported 73% of health care workers vaccinated, and Polk County 68%.

Some states and cities, including New Jersey and Denver, have required health care providers to get vaccinated against Covid. Oregon is the only state in the U.S. with a law forbidding employers from requiring health care workers get vaccinated as a condition of their job. 

The law, passed in 1989, has an exception if vaccination is otherwise required by federal or state law, rule or regulation. It’s come under more scrutiny in recent weeks as hospital and health care systems have lobbied lawmakers to eliminate the exemption and allow them to require vaccination.

California-based Kaiser Permanente announced Monday it would require all employees to be vaccinated against Covid by Sept. 30, including those in Oregon. It’s unclear how the health provider intends to enforce the requirement in Oregon, and a Kaiser Permanente Northwest spokesman did not respond to a call from Salem Reporter.

In an opinion column published July 28 in The Oregonian, Sarah Horn, Salem Health’s chief nursing officer, joined other Oregon health care employers urging a change.

“Stopping COVID-19 means vaccinating as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But in Oregon, there are barriers to reaching that goal that defy logic ­– like the one banning hospitals and other health care providers from requiring that their staffs be vaccinated,” the group wrote. “When health care workers are vaccinated, everyone in a hospital is safer. It’s well past time for state leaders to lead discussions of this outdated policy and give community hospitals additional tools to respond to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Brown said in her statement she would work with legislative leaders and other stakeholders to address the law during the 2022 legislative session, which begins in February.

She said private employers in Oregon should work to remove barriers to vaccination for employees by offering paid time off and other incentives.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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