Battle lines drawn in Malheur County as virus surges

The Malheur County Health Department is hosting free vaccination and testing at the Malheur County Fairgrounds every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through October. (The Enterprise/File).

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A new federal mandate is coming for Covid vaccines as legal and political fights continue in Malheur County and across Oregon to buck the health move.

Two lawsuits by public employees are contesting Gov. Kate Brown’s directive that certain employees must be vaccinated.

Local citizens stage another curbside protest on Saturday and Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said he sent off a collection of 2,436 signatures on a petition to Brown urging her to abandon the vaccine mandates.

The moves come as Malheur County continues to see a worsening in Covid cases and escalating quarantines for local school students.

“There is more hardship than ever,” said Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department. “We have a vaccine. About a third of our community is protected. People who are getting really sick and dying of this disease are not vaccinated.”

A Malheur County resident is among six Oregonians suing Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Association in hopes of adding a vaccination exemption for people who have previously had Covid.

The Freedom Foundation filed the complaint in Eugene U.S. District Court last week. The conservative think tank is representing the group of employees around the state.

The plaintiffs include Jay Hicks, who is a resident of Malheur County and has been a corrections officer with the Oregon Department of Corrections since 1999.

He said in the complaint that he got Covid last fall and claims that it has given them antibodies that provide “natural immunity” and replace the need for the vaccine.

Hicks didn’t respond to request for comment from the Enterprise.

Vaccines remain the safest and most effective way to prevent hospitalization and illness from Covid, according to local, state and national health experts.

“Antibody testing is not currently recommended to determine if you are immune to COVID-19 following COVID-19 vaccination,” the CDC website states. “Antibody testing should also not be used to decide if someone needs to be vaccinated.”

The CDC said that antibody testing is inconsistent and unreliable, and doesn’t currently prove Covid immunity.

Jason Dudash, Oregon director of the Freedom Foundation, said that the goal of the lawsuit is to provide more options for employees, rather than a “one size fits all” requirement that he said could lead to resignations.

“I think that we share an interest with the governor with this to keep as many people on the payroll as possible,” Dudash said.

State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane wrote Brown on Aug. 25, saying the vaccine requirements could harm local health care. They described how local agencies, from school districts to fire services, would be crippled by resignations among those who reject the state vaccine mandate.

Brown had not responded to their letter as of Sept. 10, Findley said.

The Oregon Fraternal Order of Police headed another lawsuit against filed against Brown last week. It lists two Oregon State Police from Ontario, Lt. Mark Duncan and Detective Javier Marquez, as plaintiffs.

Duncan and Marquez didn’t respond to request for comment.

The lawsuit states that they are acting for “their rights and responsibilities to make medical decisions for themselves,” which they say Brown’s vaccine mandate for executive employees violates.

The lawsuit, filed in the Jefferson County Circuit Court, seeks a temporary restraining order against the vaccination requirement, and seeks to invalidate it.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said he sent his petition asking the governor to retract the mandates on Friday, Sept. 10. It gathered 2,436 signatures from citizens.

Gov. Brown’s office previously told the Enterprise that she would be keeping the mandates.

Despite local resistance to vaccination requirements, more might be on the way. President Joe Biden announced on Sept. 9 that all employers with more than 100 employees will be required to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated, or tested for Covid weekly.

Representatives from Kraft Heinz and Fry Foods, both employing large workforces in Malheur County, did not respond to requests from the Enterprise for comment.

Malheur County had 220 new cases of Covid the week of Aug. 29, a 43% increase from the week before. Cases have been increasing each week since early July.

Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health department, said the region currently has the highest number of Covid patients in the hospital, and the highest rate of Covid the area has ever seen.

Currently, 35% of Malheur County’s total population has been vaccinated, the lowest rate in the state.

95% of patients hospitalized with Covid in the region are unvaccinated, and 99% of Covid patients in the intensive care units are unvaccinated, according to St. Luke’s Health System, St. Alphonsus Health System and Valley Family Health Care.

School districts around the county have continued to quarantine students and staff due to Covid exposure.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon tweeted his support of the Covid vaccine, which he wrote was “the best way to protect oneself from potentially serious health outcomes due to the virus.”

“I am opposed to mandates. I support vaccination if you want it and if you want to reduce your risk,” Bentz said to the Enterprise. “My main message is that don’t take it from me. Go talk to you doctor or someone you trust.”

As of Sept. 10, Adrian had two students and one staff member quarantined, according to Mark Redmond, interim superintendent of the Adrian School District. 

The Vale School reported 50 students and staff members in isolation or quarantine, with 9 of them having positive Covid tests as of Sept. 13.

The Nyssa School District Reported 6 students and 3 faculty with positive Covid cases on Sept. 13.

The Ontario School district reported that it had 126 students in quarantine from Sept. 7 through Sept. 10, with 24 having positive tests.

The Ontario School District has asked parents to keep their child home if they have any Covid symptoms, including fever, cough or a sore throat.

The Malheur County Health Department is hosting free vaccination and testing at the Malheur County Fairgrounds every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through October. For more information, visit their website at malheurhealth.org

Reporters Abbey McDonald, Pat Caldwell and Liliana Frankel contributed reporting for this story.

News tip? Contact Abbey McDonald at [email protected].


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