Many Oregon Health Care Providers Remain Unvaccinated, New Data Show
Ninety-four percent of Oregon dentists have received a COVID-19 vaccination.
But only half of chiropractors have gotten a jab. And for chiropractic assistants the vaccination rate is 45%. Dentists and chiropractors represent the high and low end of vaccination rates among licensed health care workers in the state, new data show. Many other health care professionals also have relatively feeble vaccination rates: just 57% of Oregon’s certified nursing assistants are vaccinated; 60% of licensed professional nurses are vaccinated; and only 56% of advanced emergency medical technicians have received a shot.
The picture emerged in data released this week by the Oregon Health Authority. The data pull back the curtain on how health care professionals have embraced -- or resisted -- the COVID-19 vaccine.
The relatively poor rates in many health care professions have rekindled the question of whether vaccines should be mandatory for health care workers who may come into close contact with patients and have a high risk of catching the virus or passing it on to others.
The state’s hospital industry group says Oregon leaders need to step up and change state law so providers can mandate vaccinations.
But others say it is better to use advocacy and other means to encourage health care workers to get vaccinated, instead of threatening them with termination.
Either way, the data are eye-opening in revealing how many health care workers have rejected the vaccine, or simply not bothered with it, even as health care leaders advocate for vaccination for the population as a whole.
Hesitancy Hits Health Care
Some of the data offers little surprise: Health care workers as a group are marginally more vaccinated than the general public. Overall, they had a vaccination rate of 70% in late June, ahead of Gov. Kate Brown’s 70% goal for the overall population. The state hit that target on July 2.
Yet health care workers have had much more time to get vaccinated.
They were the first group to become eligible for vaccines when the shots were in short supply and high demand as Oregon developed priority lists to get vaccines to front-line health care workers and others who face the highest risk. That was before Oregon turned to lottery prizes and giveaways in a bid to drive up its sluggish vaccination rate after shots became widely available.
If anything, the data serve as a reminder that vaccine hesitancy continues to have a stubborn presence in Oregon, even among those who work in health care and have had access to vaccines longer than other Oregonians. Further, the obstacles to vaccinating Oregon’s wider population also persist among health care workers. Health care workers who are minorities or live in rural parts of the state often have lower vaccination rates than their peers elsewhere in Oregon.
This underscores another reality for Oregon: State law prevents health care providers and hospitals from making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for employees who work with their patients, even as the same providers vaccinate the general public and tout the importance of vaccination. The law requires health care employers to offer immunizations to their employees, but they cannot mandate the vaccines as a condition of employment.
The debate continues to play out, even as Oregon has reopened its economy and embarks on the long slog towards herd immunity.
Oregon still has the goal of vaccinating 80% of adults to reach that threshold. To accomplish that, the state will need to vaccinate nearly 455,000 more people, according to health authority figures. Currently, only about 5,000 people a day are getting vaccinated, state data show.
Hospital Group: ‘Misguided Policy’
In response to the state data on vaccination rates among health care workers, the Oregon Association of Hospitals & Health Care Systems on Wednesday said that the state’s “misguided policy” on not allowing vaccine mandates at work continues to impede progress. Hospitals across the nation support mandatory vaccines for employees.
“As the number of hospitals and health systems requiring COVID-19 vaccination for employees continues to grow across the U.S., here in Oregon we can’t even have the conversation,” said Becky Hultberg, the association’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Ensuring health care workers are vaccinated protects vulnerable patients, visitors, and coworkers. It is unconscionable to leave tools on the table during a global pandemic. It’s well past time for state leaders to address this misguided policy.”
More than 30 hospital systems and hospital associations around the country support vaccine mandates, according to the Oregon group. Houston Methodist was the first health system nationwide to require vaccinations for employees, starting in April, according to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Italy, France and Greece are among nations that have mandated vaccinations for health care workers.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s spokesman on Wednesday didn’t rule out -- or endorse -- mandatory vaccinations.
“Both for their own safety and the safety of the patients they work with, it is critical that frontline health care workers be protected from COVID-19 with vaccines,” said Charles Boyle, Brown’s spokesman. “That’s why the governor prioritized health care workers in Phase 1a of Oregon’s vaccination efforts. The Oregon Legislature just completed a six-month legislative session, which would have been the appropriate venue in which to raise this issue and debate such a change to Oregon law.”
Boyle said the issue “deserves thoughtful consideration and public input from employers and employees alike,” adding that the Legislature’s session in February 2022 offers that opportunity.
But there is resistance to such a mandate, both in Oregon and other states. In Texas, 117 workers at Houston Methodist sued over the mandate in federal court, but their case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Texas. In the June 12 ruling, the judge found that the hospital is “trying to do their business of saving lives” and the employees can refuse to get a shot and go work somewhere else.
Nurses Union Favors Current Law
The Oregon Nurses Association, the labor union that represents about 15,000 registered nurses and allied health workers, said it’s not seeking a change in the state’s laws for workplace vaccinations.
Registered nurses have a vaccination rate of 74%.
“ONA has a long history of promoting and providing free vaccinations while protecting the privacy of individuals’ health care records,” said Scott Palmer, the union’s spokesman. “We are not currently seeking a change in Oregon’s statutes regarding workplace immunizations. We will continue to discuss the most effective ways to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are accessible and equitable for all Oregonians.”
Palmer added that corporations have other tools at their disposal to use to boost vaccination rates instead of terminating people.
“We believe there is much more work corporations can do to protect workers and increase vaccination rates before they begin firing working Oregonians during a pandemic,” Palmer said. “Corporations must first ensure a safe workplace and support workers by providing appropriate safety equipment, vaccine education, paid time off for vaccine appointments, paid sick leave that covers possible vaccine side effects, and workers’ compensation benefits for workers in high-risk settings who contract COVID-19 on-the-job. Health care corporations can do more to make immunization an easy choice for all Oregonians.”
Misinformation Remains A Concern
In rural Oregon, vaccination rates of health care workers are low, a trendline similar to the overall public.
Grant, Harney, Lake and Malheur counties each have health care worker vaccinations rates of 50% or less, the state data show. Harney County has the lowest rate at 43%.
The Oregon Health Care Association, which represents the long-term and senior housing industry, said health care workers continue to be hesitant to get vaccinated.
“Our staff are exposed to the same vaccine misinformation online and in their daily lives as other Oregonians,” the group said in a statement.
Some providers have been able to achieve high vaccination rates, but others continue to see hesitancy among staff, the group said.
There are 21 active COVID-19 outbreaks totalling 188 cases in senior living facilities and other congregate settings across Oregon, state data released Wednesday show.
The Portland tri-county area and Lane County, which includes Eugene-Springfield, all have overall vaccination rates for providers that are 75% or higher. Benton County has the highest rate for providers: 82%.
Jul 14 2021