Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe. (Rachel Parsons/The Enterprise)

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VALE – More than 400 people have signed on to Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe's letter to Gov. Kate Brown rejecting statewide mandates for masking and vaccination requirements for certain workers.

That came despite a declaration by Brown that she wouldn't reverse the mandates and that local leaders were playing politics with Oregonians' lives. 

She said her administration has not asked any sheriff to enforce Covid-related mandates.

“As Elected Sheriff of Malheur County I Believe that; it’s not the governments job to protect our health. It’s the governments job to protect our Rights, Freedoms, and Liberties,” Wolfe wrote in the letter dated Aug. 20.

A third of Oregon’s 36 county sheriffs have publicly disagreed with the governor’s recent statewide mandates as of Friday, Aug. 27. They include sheriffs in nearby Grant and Union counties.

In the past month, Brown has announced mask requirements in both indoor and outdoor public spaces, and vaccination requirements for health care workers, school employees and state workers.

The rules came as hospitals across the state reached capacity during a surge in Covid cases, breaking records from the previous height of the pandemic.

Malheur County saw 146 new cases last week, a 23% increase from the week before. Cases have been increasing each week since July.

Brown said she never asked sheriffs to enforce the mandates, which Wolfe confirmed. Brown said she intends to reach out to the dissenting sheriffs.

“I’m going to ask them to tour an ICU with me, filled with Covid patients,” Brown said in an interview with the Enterprise.

In northeast Oregon, the state reported that as of Monday, it had two of 25 beds available in intensive care units and 41 out of 127 other beds. The region includes Malheur, Baker, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties.

Local hospitals are filling up and hospitalizations are expected to increase over the next month, according to Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department.

Brown said she would not be retracting her mandates under pressure from the sheriffs, and rejected Wolfe’s statement that “it’s not the governments job to protect our health.”

“They’re playing politics with people’s lives. I am not playing politics. I am not trying to get votes. I am trying to keep Oregonians alive,” Brown said.

Officials at the Malheur County Health Department, a government entity with a $3.7 million budget last year and a mission statement of “promoting and protecting the health of our community,” declined to comment on Wolfe’s statement.

Wolfe said that he supports physical distancing and common-sense hygiene practices, but did not support the mandates. He said employees at the county jail will be wearing masks, however, due to its limited space.

“I believe that whether you wear a mask, whether you vaccinate, those need to be personal choices based off of your own beliefs and research,” Wolfe said. “Mandating somebody to get it, and making them make a choice between their livelihoods and getting a vaccination or wearing a mask infringes upon our liberties granted by the Constitution of the United States.”

Wolfe and other sheriffs claimed that the mandates were unconstitutional, which is not true, according to a statement to the Enterprise from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

“First, as our state’s chief legal officer, I am confident that vaccine and mask mandates are legal under Oregon law,” Rosenblum said. “Second, there is no refuting that wearing a mask and getting vaccinated are our best line of defense against COVID and the highly contagious Delta variant. Third, my agency, the Oregon Department of Justice, has 1,300 employees in every corner of the state. I am fully on board with the governor’s mandate that all our employees be vaccinated by mid-October.”

Wolfe’s letter received largely positive support from the local community on social media, with the post on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page receiving 280 positive reactions by Friday, and eight negative.

The statement included an opportunity to sign a petition of support, which Wolfe said will be open to the public until Sept. 3. The petition will be at the sheriff’s department in Vale and at Community Corrections center in Ontario.

Around 400 people had stopped by the sheriff’s office in Vale to sign by Friday afternoon, according to the department. They had not yet counted the signatures from other locations.

Malheur County Commissioner Ron Jacobs said that he supports Wolfe’s statement. He government should provide information for people to make their own decisions about getting vaccinated.

“I think it’s the job of the local authorities to try to protect the people as much as they can, but I don’t think that should get in the way of individual freedoms,” Jacobs said. 

The science is clear, according to health experts. Getting vaccinated greatly reduces the chances of getting hospitalized or dying of Covid, and the benefits far outweigh any risks.

Wolfe said he believes it’s the individual’s job to evaluate the benefits of getting vaccinated.

“We live in a society where there are consequences for our actions,” Wolfe said. “My belief is that if I choose to get vaccinated then the consequences of choosing to get vaccinated are most likely I will have fewer issues with the virus. On the same token, those who choose not to, if they get the virus, then the consequence is they’re probably going to be sicker.”

Malheur County currently has the lowest vaccination rate in the state for total population, at 33% On Friday, it was tied for having the highest rate of positive Covid tests in the state, at 15.5%

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

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