Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday announced mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for health care workers and teachers and other support staff in K-12 schools.
But just how school districts and hospitals and other health care providers will enforce the mandate remains an open question. Brown said she is leaving it up to them, and that they need to persuade workers to get vaccinated, in order for schools and hospitals to function safely.
The new mandate underscored the heightened severity of the pandemic in Oregon, as the delta variant rages throughout the state and sparks a critical shortage of hospital beds. Oregon on Tuesday had 850 people with COVID-19 hospitalized, which epidemiologists project will grow to more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized by Labor Day.
The spread of COVID-19 has prompted the state to scrap plans it made just a couple weeks ago. On Aug. 4, Brown announced that health care employees will need to either have a COVID-19 vaccination or be tested for the virus each week, starting Sept. 30.
Now, health care workers will no longer have the option to be tested each week if they don’t want to be vaccinated.
"We need every single front-line health care worker healthy and available to treat patients," Brown said in a press call with reporters.
If workers don’t comply, and they lack a religious or health reason for not getting the vaccination, their employer will have to determine what discipline to use, she said.
Under Brown’s new plan, health care workers must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after the vaccines have full approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration, whichever is later. So, too, must all K-12 workers, including teachers, support staff and volunteers, Brown said.
The vaccines are currently available under an emergency use authorization that still required clinical trials but cut red tape to get them to the public sooner.
The New York Times reported the vaccines may receive full approval by early September.
In that event, under Brown’s mandate, unvaccinated workers would need to get their first shot in September, so they could wait the required 3-4 weeks before getting their second shot and be fully vaccinated by the deadline.
The governor put a similar deadline in place for executive branch state government employees to get vaccinated. Like the mandate for state workers, these new mandates will have exemptions for medical or religious reasons.Brown’s move to mandate vaccines for school workers represents a quick turnaround from as recently as Aug. 11. Asked then at a press conference if she plans to mandate vaccines for teachers, Brown said she is leaving that in the “very capable hands” of district superintendents.
Yet public health officials again stressed the quick-moving nature of the delta variant has strained hospitals nearly to the breaking point. As they have before, officials urged people to get vaccinated.
“We can blunt this surge,” Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said.
Even so, the pace of vaccination is unlikely to immediately bring relief to hospitals, where patients have filled intensive care units at or near capacity.
"Our health care system is on the verge of collapse in parts of the state,” Allen said.
Employees Watch Issues Unfold
Vaccination rates among some Oregon health care workers remain low, according to the latest data, which dates to mid-July. At that time, just 57% of Oregon’s certified nursing assistants were vaccinated; 60% of licensed professional nurses were vaccinated; and only 56% of advanced emergency medical technicians have received a shot. Registered nurses had a 74% vaccination rate.
Labor groups are now watching how the dynamic plays out, with an eye on employee safety and the rights of workers.
Lynda Pond, president of the 15,000-member Oregon Nurses Association, said the union remains in support of the previous rule that required weekly COVID-19 testing if a worker chose not to get vaccinated.
The union is ambivalent about Brown’s new mandate.
“We wish it hadn’t come to this and we understand why it’s come to this,” Pond said in an interview with The Lund Report.
Pond stressed that the group recognizes that Oregon now has a mandate in place and believes in the science behind the vaccines, adding that getting vaccinated is “the right thing to do” provided there isn’t a medical or religious reason to not get the vaccine.
The group’s biggest worry is that the mandate will put the health care system into further crisis if workers quit over it. That would put the system into an even deeper crisis amid a steep demand for health care workers, Pond said.
“Our biggest concern behind this is the folks that are saying ‘If I am forced to get this vaccine by the government or my employer, I am walking away from the bedside. I am not doing that,’” Pond said.
Already, nurses and other health care workers are exhausted and stressed.
“COVID-19 just opened the doors to make the staffing crisis the worst that it's ever been,” Pond said. “We’re already seeing nurses leave the bedside because they’re overworked.”
Even with the mandate, Pond said, hospitals have the responsibility to bargain with nurses about working conditions related to the vaccine and COVID-19, such as paid sick leave if there are side effects, fresh personal protective equipment supplies and free testing.
Nursing Home Group Backs Move
The Oregon Health Care Association, which represents long-term care providers and facilities, supports Brown’s move.
“Every health care worker who can be vaccinated, should be vaccinated. The governor’s updated measure to require vaccinations for all health care workers is a critical step to achieving this goal,” said OHCA CEO Phil Bentley in a statement. “Vaccinations are saving lives and restoring personal freedoms, and they are the only path to defeating the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Bentley said the workforce shortage among long-term care providers could grow even worse if unvaccinated caregivers opt to leave the field instead of get a vaccination.
But, he said, “Hopefully, we will be past the current delta variant surge before this occurs, as we cannot afford to lose any more nursing facility capacity in our health care system.”
It’s unclear whether school districts and health care employers will terminate employees for refusing to get vaccinated or whether some employers might assign workers to positions with no patient or student contact. It is also unclear whether jobs exist within health care or K-12 systems that are exempt from the vaccination mandate. Brown’s announcement said that “All teachers, educators, support staff and volunteers in K-12 schools” are subject to the mandate.
Brown said state government employees who don’t get vaccinated have three options: an exemption for medical reasons, an exemption for religious reasons or termination.
But she didn’t weigh in on how the process would work for employers outside state government.
“In terms of other employers, they'll have to speak to that,” Brown said.
Public health officials are closely watching the potential impact of the virus and delta variant on children, as there is no vaccine available for children under 12.
Brown didn’t rule out the possibility of mandatory vaccines for children 12 and older in public schools when federal officials give the vaccine full approval. She also didn’t rule out the possibility of other public health restrictions, such as capacity limits for businesses.
“All options are on the table,” Brown said.
You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.