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Oregon requires COVID-19 vaccination for teachers, staff

FILE - This Saturday, March 6, 2021, file photo, shows vials of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital pharmacy. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Amid a surge in coronavirus cases and as hospitals near capacity, Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday that Oregon is expanding its COVID-19 vaccine requirement to include all teachers, educators, support staff and volunteers in K-12 schools.

Teachers are the latest to be added to the growing statewide vaccine mandate — which also includes health care workers and state employees — that requires them to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after a COVID-19 vaccine receives full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whichever is later.

In addition, Brown announced weekly testing for health care workers will no longer be an option for those who want to avoid vaccination. The only opt-out of the requirement is either a medical or religious exemption.

Oregon's mandate is similar to the one announced in Washington state on Wednesday, which along with K-12 teachers also includes employees at the state’s colleges and universities. Last week, California announced a mandate that covers both public and private schools, but allows testing instead of vaccination. Earlier this month, Hawaii required all Department of Education staffers to disclose their vaccination status or face weekly testing.

In an effort to keep Oregon students safe in the upcoming school year and minimize disruptions to in-person instruction, Brown announced last month that masks would be required regardless of vaccination status in K-12 schools. Currently, children under 12 are not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition, on Friday a statewide mask mandate was reimplemented — everyone in Oregon who is 5 years or older, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a mask in indoor public spaces.

The increased health and safety measures come as Oregon's health system is clobbered by COVID-19 cases.

On Wednesday there were just 41 intensive care unit beds available in the state. Oregon's hospitalization records have been shattered day after day as the highly transmissible delta variant spreads across the state.

As of Wednesday, 850 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in Oregon — surpassing the state’s record, which was set the previous day. Before this month, the hospitalization record was 622 in November, during a winter surge and when vaccines were not yet available.

More than a third of the state’s 652 adult ICU beds are being used for COVID-19 patients. Health officials say that the overwhelming majority of hospitalized virus patients are unvaccinated.

For weeks Oregon health officials have warned that COVID-19 cases, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, would fill hospitals by September if infection rates didn’t slow significantly. Now, a little more than halfway through the month of August, 94% of the state’s hospital beds for adults and 93% of ICU beds are full.

On Friday 500 National Guard members will be deployed to serve as equipment runners in the most stricken hospitals and help with testing.

In an attempt keep hospital beds open, health systems across Oregon have opted to postpone elective procedures, nurses and physicians say they are overwhelmed and health officials are desperately urging people to get vaccinated and wear masks.

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Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.