Oregon Health Authority advises employers to be flexible in enforcing Oct. 18 vaccine mandate

Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

SALEM – The Oregon Health Authority has advised the state and employers of health care staff, educators and others facing the Oct. 18 vaccine mandate not to fire employees over the deadline.

“Everybody doesn’t need to turn into a pumpkin on the 18th,” said Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority. “But they can’t be in an in-patient- and student-facing work anymore at that point.”

The agency advised employers to let staff work remotely, take vacation time or unpaid leave to meet the deadline, he told the Oregon Health Policy Board on Tuesday. The board advises the state agency.

“There’s flexibility to not actually have to terminate people,” Allen said. “But people still really do need to get vaccinated.” 

Gov. Kate Brown’s mandates require all executive branch employees, along with health care staff and educators and others who work or volunteer in schools to be fully vaccinated by the due date. Monday was the last day for those facing the mandate to get their second Pfizer or Moderna shot or their first Johnson & Johnson shot, Allen said. It takes two weeks for full inoculation to kick in.

The state will allow opt-outs for medical or religious reasons but it is not tracking exemptions. A health authority official said it’s up to each employer to police the mandate. 

It’s not clear how many executive branch employees, including state police, have asked for an exemption. The authority’s media relations team did not respond to an email Tuesday from the Oregon Capital Chronicle requesting that data.

Some hospitals set earlier deadlines for vaccination, including Portland-based Legacy Health, which gave staff until Sept. 30. By the deadline, nearly 800 health care staff had not been vaccinated, said Kristen Whitney, spokesperson for Legacy. She said this week that the number has since come down to about 700.

“Our hope is that that vaccination number will continue to climb,” Whitney told the Capital Chronicle.

The hospital system noted online that it had received hundreds of requests for exemptions.

“A team of spiritual care, ethics, primary care and infection prevention experts provided a thoughtful and thorough review of each request,” the statement said. “The Exception Work Group committee approved some medical and religious requests, and we recognize the denials were upsetting for some employees”

An Oregon Nurses Association spokesman said that the union had received several complaints from members saying their request for an exemption was denied at Legacy Silverton Medical Center.

“A blanket rejection of religious exemptions is not what we consider to be good,” said Scott Palmer, the spokesman.

The association does not represent nurses at other Legacy facilities. 

Several lawsuits filed against Gov. Kate Brown and the state seek an injunction against the mandate.

They include a complaintfiled Sept. 9 by the Oregon Fraternal Order of Police, a group of 100 Oregon State Police employees, the Kingsley Firefighters Association Inc. in Klamath County and more than 30 individuals. The suit claims the mandate is illegal because it forces employees “who want to exercise control over their own medical treatment” to choose “between their rights, privileges and liberties as citizens on the one hand and their employment, careers and financial futures on the other.”

The suit is pending in Jefferson County Circuit Court. A similar suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene by the Freedom Foundation. Based in Salem, it registered with the state as the Oregon Freedom Foundation in April 2019 as a nonprofit. 

Another group, Oregon Healthcare Workers for Medical Freedom, based in Klamath Falls, filed a suit in the Oregon Court of Appeals as did a group called Free Oregon, based in Tualatin. State records show that Oregon Healthcare Workers registered as a nonprofit last month, with Free Oregon registering as a nonprofit in July.

All of those suits are pending.

Before the policy board, Allen said he didn’tthink that Oregon would face a deluge of employees leaving their jobs because of the mandate, but he acknowledged that any loss would hurt at a time when health care companies are facing a workforce shortage.

“Even a 5% loss rate now is a big deal,” Allen said.

Retired physician John Santa, a member of the Oregon Health Policy Board, said he’s concerned about small health care companies in rural areas losing staff.

“I think the larger health systems are going to do fine. They have a number of management options as far as assigning people to remote work and nonclinical work and putting people on leave,” Santa told the Oregon Capital Chronicle. “I’m worried about the small practices in rural (Oregon) where there is more hesitancy.”

State data show that an average 80% of the state’s health care workforce is now vaccinated though rates vary among professions, with 96% of dentists vaccinated compared with only 55% of chiropractic assistants.

The state has deployed hundreds of National Guard members to help hospitals and the health authority has paid for temporary nurses as well. 

Agency officials said they did not yet have the invoices and have billed the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the cost.

The current coronavirus surge continues to abate, though slowly, Allen said. The number of cases and people hospitalized has dropped in recent weeks, though the number of patients in intensive care has gone down more slowly. The majority of those hospitalized are unvaccinated, Allen said.

He noted that some people are choosing not to get vaccinated, figuring that if they become infected they can be treated with monoclonal antibodies. These antibodies are made in a lab and are based on the same science used to create the vaccines. Supplies had started to run out in Oregon and across the country. The federal government is now managing supplies with allocations to each state.

Allen said people would be better off getting a shot than waiting for treatment.

“The antibodies are not nearly as effective as actual vaccination,” Allen said.

Vaccinations are increasing, with a seven-day average of more than 11,000 shots a day. Allen said that nearly 80% of all adults in Oregon are now vaccinated against Covid-19.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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