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Law leaves workers, patients in harm’s way

The Veterans Affairs Department announced Monday it will require employees in VA health care facilities to be vaccinated against COVID-19. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered all hospital employees in that state to get a vaccine or submit to weekly testing. But this cannot happen in Oregon, because a 32-year-old state law makes it illegal.

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Yes, you read that right. Oregon is the only state in the country in which hospitals are forbidden to require their employees to get vaccinated. And this includes not just health care employees but police officers and firefighters. All other employers are free to require their employees to get vaccinated if they wish.

Why this happened is unclear. According to reporting by The Oregonian, the Legislature in 1989 passed a law that said health care workers had to be told when they were exposed to a patient with an infectious disease. At the time, the concern was HIV. No one seems to know why the vaccine prohibition was included in the legislation.

It doesn’t really matter at this point. In a classic case of unintended consequences, a deadly virus is now resurging in the population despite the availability of effective vaccines, but health workers can choose not to protect themselves and their patients, and their employers can’t require them to.

State statistics indicate vaccination rates are high among most medical professionals, but not all. The Oregon Health Authority says 93% of doctors are vaccinated, and 75% of nurses. But among certified nursing assistants — who often provide the bulk of direct patient care — less than 60% are vaccinated.

This is simply unacceptable. And yet, a state law bars health organizations from requiring their employees to be vaccinated. The Legislature doesn’t meet again until next January, and even then there is no specific plan to change the law. The nurses union opposes new employer requirements for its members, saying voluntary compliance is working just fine.

That doesn’t mean nothing can be done, however.

The Oregon Health Authority says it can’t give employers the option to require vaccinations themselves, but it could issue a statewide rule ordering health care employers to require their workers to get shots. An OHA spokesman told The Oregonian that so far no one has asked the agency to do that.

The association that represents Oregon hospitals has been asking legislators to change the state law, but said it isn’t advocating for the OHA to issue a statewide administrative mandate.

It should. The single most effective weapon we have against this pandemic is vaccination. And health care workers ought to be vaccinated if anyone should, to protect patients from the virus and to set an example of responsible behavior in the face of a deadly virus.

Gov. Kate Brown used emergency powers to issue executive orders shutting down businesses and requiring masks. Those measures helped keep Oregon’s caseload among the lightest in the country.

She should ask the OHA to issue an administrative rule mandating vaccines for health care workers until the Legislature can correct its 32-year-old mistake.