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It’s time to talk about a vaccine mandate

The Oregon Health Authority’s order on Monday requiring health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 comes too late for the Asante staff who were caught up in a breakout of 61 cases. But it’s the right step for the state to take.

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So is Gov. Kate Brown’s announcement today that she is imposing an indoor mask requirement and ordering state employees to get vaccinated. The latest surge in COVID cases is overwhelming hospitals and preventing people with non-COVID illnesses from receiving care.

New modeling by Oregon Health and Science University projects that by September, without new restrictions in place, Oregon hospitals could be 500 staffed beds short of what will be needed to treat patients regardless of the illness.

If that’s not a reason to vaccinate more health care workers, we don’t know what is.

Asante saw a sharp increase in cases in multiple departments at Rogue Regional Medical Center last week. While it’s not clear whether a patient or an employee was the source of the outbreak, a higher percentage of vaccinated staff members might have prevented it.

Asante as a whole has an employee vaccination rate of 64%. That’s better than Jackson County’s rate of less than 50%, but both numbers should be higher.

A new indoor mask requirement is bound to generate howls of protest from those who believe a simple and effective way to prevent the spread of a deadly virus amounts to an infringement of their rights. That’s nonsense.

No one is calling for a return to the economic shutdowns that marked the pandemic before vaccines became available. We’ve come far enough, thanks to vaccinations, that businesses can continue to operate.

But the delta variant is two to three times more infectious than earlier strains of the virus, and is causing some cases even in fully vaccinated individuals. Those cases are almost exclusively mild and do not require hospitalization. More than 90% of those currently hospitalized for COVID are unvaccinated.

That is a powerful argument for going a step beyond just requiring masks again. Vaccinations have been required for many years in this country — dating back to the American Revolution, when Gen. George Washington required his troops to be inoculated against smallpox. Every state requires vaccinations against childhood diseases to attend public school. Vaccinations against many tropical diseases are required to travel to parts of the world where they are prevalent. The U.S. military just announced it will require COVID vaccinations for its troops.

New York City now requires proof of vaccination for entry into indoor spaces. Oregon should follow suit.

Of course no one should be forced to submit to getting vaccinated or jailed if they don’t. But barring a legitimate medical reason or a deeply held religious belief, the choice to refuse vaccination should have consequences.

If you want to enter public indoor spaces, you should be willing to protect others from your presence by being vaccinated. If not, you can stay home.