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Oregon health care workers to get COVID-19 vaccine or be tested

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, a droplet falls from a syringe after a health care worker was injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

PORTLAND — Oregon health care workers will be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing, Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday.

Officials say the new rule will apply beginning Sept. 30 — giving time for employers to prepare for implementation and for unvaccinated health care workers to become fully vaccinated.

“The more contagious delta variant has changed everything. This new safety measure is necessary to stop delta from causing severe illness among our first line of defense: our doctors, nurses, medical students, and frontline health care workers,” Brown said.

Brown directed the Oregon Health Authority to issue the new rule which applies broadly to personnel in health care settings who have direct or indirect contact with patients or infectious materials. The rule requires weekly COVID-19 testing for personnel and can be waived with proof of vaccination.

A state law enacted in 1989 prohibits employers from independently mandating vaccines for certain limited categories of workers, including health care workers. But, a spokesperson from the governor's office says the new rule does not conflict with the law.

“This is not a requirement for vaccination, rather, the OHA administrative rule gives health care personnel a choice between weekly testing or providing proof of vaccination," said Charles Boyle, Brown’s deputy communications director.

In addition, Brown says she intends to work with stakeholders and lawmakers to address the existing law during the February 2022 legislative session.

As COVID-19 surges across the state, leading health organizations — including the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems — have been pressing state leaders to open the door for health care organizations to enact vaccination mandates.

A surge of cases among unvaccinated people means intensive care units are filling up and hospitals are maxing out their use of equipment that helps COVID-19 patients breathe, Providence North President of Strategy and Operations Lisa Vance said in a Wednesday statement.

Providence operates the Providence Medford Medical Center and other hospitals.

“Gov. Brown's direction today is a welcome step,” Vance said. “Recognizing that health care must continue to lead by example, several weeks ago Providence notified all caregivers and providers that they are required to validate vaccination or sign a statement declining the vaccine, with a deadline of Sept. 30. Providence experts are available to answer questions for those who want additional information. In addition, those declining will now be required to do at least weekly additional testing on a regular basis, participate in mandatory education about the vaccine, adhere to enhanced PPE requirements, and other measures as needed to keep our patients and all caregivers safe.”

Asante President and Chief Executive Officer Scott Kelly said he supports a move to require health care workers to get vaccinated or frequently tested.

Asante has hospitals in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass.

On Monday, officials at Kaiser Permanente, one of Oregon’s largest private health systems, announced that health care workers, along with the rest of its staff, would be required to get vaccinated. The only exemptions are for medical or religious reasons.

“Making vaccination mandatory is the most effective way we can protect our people, our patients, and the communities we serve,” CEO Greg A. Adams said in an online statement.

Kaiser serves approximately 12.5 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. So far nearly 78% of the 216,000 employees have been vaccinated and 95% of Permanente Medical Group's 23,000 physicians.

In a statement sent to Oregon Public Broadcasting, Kaiser’s Director of Integrated Communications Michael G. Foley acknowledged Oregon's 1989 law, but said “because of the growing seriousness of the current situation, the new risks and increased cases caused by the delta variant, as well as the priority to keep patients and employees safe, we will act to apply the vaccination requirement in the Northwest region.”

Kaiser is working with state health officials and the governor to “support vaccination to the fullest extent permitted by law and any future guidance,” Foley said.

Health officials are urging residents to get vaccinated. Currently, around 29% of Oregon adults remain unvaccinated.

Brown said that she is looking at additional health and safety options to protect Oregonians, including vaccination and testing policies for state workers.

“As we have throughout this pandemic, we are learning to adapt to the new reality the delta variant has created," Brown said. “I am encouraging Oregon cities, counties, businesses, and employers to think creatively, and to implement measures such as paid time off for vaccination, and incentives for employees, in addition to instituting masking requirements and other health and safety measures in the workplace.”