Gov. Kate Brown (The Enterprise File).

UPDATE – Switching course, Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday said all workers in local schools will have to be vaccinated – and so will health care workers in hospitals and other settings.

The governor made her announcement as Oregon hospitals reported sometimes overflow conditions as the Delta variant of Covid takes an increasing toll.

Brown had imposed a mask mandate on everyone in schools but her decision to require school employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 18 was new.

Her order comes as some Malheur County schools already are in session and more will return to classrooms the week of Aug. 23.

She also modified an earlier directive for health care workers, removing the option for those who didn’t want to get vaccinated to instead submit to regular testing to detect a Covid infection.

The governor and state health authorities emphasized that the measures were intended to alleviate pressure for health care workers, who are seeing an unprecedented volume of Covid patients in hospitals, including intensive care units for critically-ill people.

As of Wednesday, Aug. 18, there were four staffed adult ICU beds remaining out of 25, and 46 out of 127 non ICU-beds for the region which includes Malheur, Baker Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties. 

On July 1, the region had one patient hospitalized for Covid and, after hitting a peak of 28 on Aug. 13, it recorded 16 patients on Monday.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a similar statewide school staff vaccination requirement on Wednesday. There have been several school-related Covid outbreaks nationwide, leading to district closures in Texas and student quarantines in Florida.

“There are those who will disagree with the actions I’m taking today. But school is 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,” Brown said. “And that’s why I’m willing to take the heat for this decision.”

Colt Gill, the director of the Oregon Department of Education, said that school districts or their workers who do not comply with the requirement would first be educated about the importance of getting vaccinated. This would be by the local health department and the Oregon Immunization Program, according to the OHA law handbook.

“Barring that, the Oregon Health Authority has authority and state statute to levy civil penalties against the school district or an employer who fails to follow these requirements,” Gill said.

Gill said no state funding would be withheld from districts that do not comply.

“We’re not going to take action that would have any side effect of closing a school or getting us farther from our goal of in-person instruction,” Gill said

Brown also announced that there would no longer be a testing exemption for health care workers who do not want to get vaccinated.

“We need every single frontline health care worker healthy and available to treat patients,” Brown said. “In the weeks since I announced Oregon’s original test or vaccination policy, the Delta variant has put enormous pressure on our health systems. There are simply not enough resources to stand up weekly testing systems while also responding to the current crisis.”

Following the press conference, the Oregon Nurses Association said in a statement that the organization worries the mandate for health care workers may create worse staffing shortages.

“Governor Brown’s previous rule that required weekly testing with a waiver for health care workers who show proof of vaccination was a reasonable compromise that encouraged vaccination while protecting public health,” the statement said. “Today’s decision to mandate vaccinations for health care workers may ultimately exacerbate an already dangerous staffing crisis in hospitals across the state.”

The majority of the Covid hospitalizations are of unvaccinated individuals, according to State Epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger.

“If you are unvaccinated, you have never been more vulnerable to being sickened by the virus, passing the virus onto your loved ones, getting seriously ill or even dying from COVID-19,” Sidelinger said. “If you are unvaccinated, you are risking the health of your family, your loved ones, and anyone you encounter while infected.”

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

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

Doctors in Ontario, Nampa, Boise frustrated as they treat "pandemic of the unvaccinated"

Gov. Brown says counties need to act to slow Covid

Full days, masks on: Malheur County heads back to school

Students, staff and legislators react to mask mandate in schools

Mask up, Malheur County, starting Friday for indoor public places

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