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First responders ponder COVID-19 vaccination mandate

Area first responders and some members of local law enforcement who haven’t gotten their COVID-19 vaccinations have roughly another month before state vaccine mandates kick in Oct. 18 for some workers in Oregon.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced in August that Oregon executive branch employees would be among those required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Full vaccination was also required as of Oct. 18 for health care providers and health care staff.

“Staff has been verbally encouraged to get the vaccine,” said Medford police Chief Scott Clauson. “It’s an individual decision.”

Medford police employees aren’t required to be vaccinated. Clauson mentioned that the final decision about whether some public safety employees need to get the vaccine will likely be decided in court, however.

One suit, filed by the Fraternal Order of Police, state troopers from different parts of the state, including Trooper Cory Sweet, who is based in Central Point, and firefighters at Kingsley Air Field National Guard Base in Klamath County, names Brown and the state as defendants because of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The suit, filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court, argues that the executive order is unenforceable and will only result in wrongful firings of employees who don’t want the vaccination, according to the Associated Press.

The complaint states that Sweet has filed an exemption to the vaccine order.

When it comes to COVID-19 requirements, Clauson said, changes are to be anticipated.

Even though law enforcement personnel are not generally required to be vaccinated, some Jackson County Sheriff’s Office employees working in the county jail fall under the mandate. But most will have already had COVID-19 shots before the Oct. 18 deadline, officials said.

The jail operates a medical facility where health care is provided to inmates, said Capt. Josh Aldrich, who is in charge of the Corrections Bureau at the sheriff’s office.

“Our commitment is to make sure people leave in at least as good — if not better — condition than when they come in,” Aldrich explained.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the jail has had a lower rate of COVID-19 infection than the general community, Aldrich noted, when asked about how the facility handles the virus.

The sheriff’s office has chosen employees who are vaccinated to work in the jail section that handles medical care, said Aaron Lewis, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.

The sheriff’s office and first responders are looking to the Oregon Health Authority for guidance on which employees should receive vaccinations.

Members of the Medford Fire Department who will be required to get vaccinated can obtain the vaccine at clinics offered by the department and Mercy Flights to ensure they are complying with the mandate.

The vaccination events are planned for times when fire station personnel are near the end of their 48-hour shifts, which allows them time at home to recover in case they have a bad reaction to the vaccine, said MFD Chief Eric Thompson.

Fire department employees have work shifts of 48 hours on duty and 96 hours off duty, in most cases.

“We’ve strategically planned when it’s given,” Thompson explained. “People react to it differently.”

The department has 82 employees — 69 of them working in the city’s fire stations. Only some of them are in direct contact with patients, including those who provide emergency medical services such as emergency medical technicians.

“It’s been a very collaborative process,” said Jackson County Fire District No. 5 Chief Charles Hanley. “It’s about balancing personal rights with the mandate.”

Employees there who are required to comply with the new rule are able to choose where they obtain their COVID-19 vaccinations. They receive compensation for the time off to get the shots — usually about an hour, he said.

Hanley said he doesn’t anticipate any of his team members leaving or being asked to leave because of the vaccine mandate, but some are eligible for retirement, he added.

Reach reporter Terri Harber at tharber@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4468.