Gov. Kate Brown speaks with Woodburn School District acting superintendent Juan Larios in the library on the first day back to in-person learning at Lincoln Elementary School in Woodburn, Ore. on Thursday, April 1, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oregon teachers, school employees and volunteers must get vaccinated against Covid, Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday, saying the measure will ensure the state’s schools can remain open for in-person classes this fall.

She also said the state would now require health care workers to get a Covid vaccine and would no longer allow regular testing as an alternative for those choosing not to get the shot.

“There are those who will disagree with the actions I'm taking today. With school starting across the state, 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 for this decision,” Brown said in a news conference Thursday morning.

Both rules require those affected to be fully vaccinated six weeks after any Covid vaccine receives full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval or by Oct. 18, whichever is later. That rule is intended to give workers time following federal approval to get vaccinated, because most Covid vaccines require two doses spaced several weeks apart. 

Medical and religious exemptions will be available.

The health care mandate raised alarm from the Oregon Nurses Association, which said that while the measure would increase vaccination rates among nurses, it “will also put additional pressure on an already dangerous nurse staffing crisis in Oregon.”

Dr. Steve Vets, chief medical officer for Santiam Hospital, raised the same concern in an interview with Salem Reporter last week as he discussed how the hospital’s staffing shortage has already made fewer beds available to patients who need them. While most Santiam employees are vaccinated, Vets said he was concerned a mandate would cause some employees to quit, putting further strain on smaller hospitals like Santiam.

Oregon has long had a state law prohibiting health care employers from requiring vaccination against any disease as a condition of employment “unless such immunization is otherwise required by federal or state law, rule or regulation.”

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, said state law gives the Oregon Health Authority the ability to adopt rules to control communicable diseases. Brown directed the authority to issue rules detailing the vaccination mandates.

Boyle said because there will be a state rule in place requiring vaccination, the law saying health care employers can’t require vaccines doesn’t apply.

Educator, school employee mandates

The school vaccination mandate comes one day after Portland Public Schools announced it would mandate Covid vaccines for employees, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a similar mandate for educators across the state.

“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,” Brown’s office said in a news release.

It will apply to both public and private school employees and volunteers across the state. Asked whether elected school board members, who are typically unpaid, qualified as school volunteers, a spokeswoman for the governor's office said the forthcoming rule from state agencies would detail who qualifies.

Salem-Keizer School District Superintendent Christy Perry said the district had been discussing a mandate and other options with employee unions before Brown’s announcement. In an email to staff Thursday, she said the district would await the specifics of the rule and discuss implementation with employee unions.

“Thank you for standing together for students, families, and community. We believe this is in the best interest of our students,” Perry wrote.

The Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest educator union, supported the mandate, saying it would help ensure students can remain in school consistently in the fall.

​​“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,” the association said.

State education officials will first work with schools or districts that don’t enforce the mandate, said Colt Gill, who directs the Oregon Department of Education, during the news conference Thursday. He said those that refuse to comply could be fined by the Oregon Health Authority.

But the state won’t withhold school funding from districts that defy the vaccination requirement, Gill said.

“Our goal is to have school held in person, so we are not attempting to withhold state school funds that would prevent the school from operating in person. We want our staff in front of our kids in a safe and healthy way so that they can provide that in person instruction,” Gill said.

Hospitals filling up

The governor acted as Covid-related hospitalizations have surged across the state filling hospitals near to or above capacity, particularly in central, eastern and southern Oregon.

“What we're going through right now is unimaginable. We are seeing an incredible surge of patients in our communities, as well as patients that are requiring hospitalization. We're overwhelmed. And this is really a dire situation,” said Dr. Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive for St. Charles Hospital in Bend, during the news conference Thursday. “We’re at capacity. We’re over capacity for our hospitals throughout the state and we have had to delay care significantly in this pandemic.”

Absalon said the Covid patients in St. Charles hospitals are mostly unvaccinated. As the number of them has surged, he said the hospital has had to put off needed surgeries for other patients to keep beds open.

“Quite simply put, and I don’t want to mince my words, we’re rationing care,” Absalon said. “What scares me the most about this is what's already been alluded to, which is if somebody gets in an accident or has a heart attack or need for acute care, they may not get the care in as timely, a fashion as normal. And I really want you to think about this as you embark on your activities.”

The situation at Salem Hospital is also dire, with patients who needed intensive care unit beds waiting in the emergency room Wednesday because no space was available.

“The current surge of COVID inpatients is serious and dangerous, more than what we have seen at any point in the pandemic. The situation threatens basic health care infrastructure that Oregonians depend on, most importantly the ability to access emergency services and high-acuity care when needed,” the hospital said in a statement.

The six county Willamette Valley region on Wednesday reported no staffed intensive care unit beds were available in any hospital. On Thursday morning, Salem Hospital had 83 people with Covid hospitalized, tying a high point from Saturday, and 477 of 494 staffed beds occupied.

Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said Thursday the state has secured 24 paramedics from the federal government to aid overrun Oregon hospitals. They will be deployed to hospitals in central and southern Oregon in four days, Allen said.

The governor has also called up National Guard members to aid hospitals. The guard members are not medical workers, but will assist with logistical tasks and Covid testing.

Allen said 500 guard members would be deployed Friday to hospitals most in need in southern and central Oregon. Marion County, along with the Portland Metro area, Columbia and Curry counties, will be prioritized for a second wave of guard members.

The state has requested 35 physicians, 35 advanced practice providers, 300 registered nurses, 10 paramedics and 100 respiratory therapists from other states to aid in staffing hospitals, Allen said. He did not say if or when those providers might arrive in Oregon.

The state is also contracting eight nurse crisis teams to staff long-term care facilities, freeing up hospital beds by allowing patients to be discharged from hospitals more quickly, and working with licensing boards to make it easier for health care workers in other states to practice in Oregon. Allen didn’t specify the size of the teams or where they might be deployed.

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

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