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County commissioners will declare emergency over vaccine mandate

Jackson County Commissioners Rick Dyer and Colleen Roberts fear the governor’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate will drive workers from their jobs, including in health care. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Commissioners say they fear exodus of much-needed workers

Two of Jackson County’s three commissioners agreed to declare a state of emergency based on concerns that Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate will drive workers from their jobs during an already tight labor market.

Brown announced in August that all Oregon health care workers and K-12 school staff and volunteers must get vaccinated by Oct. 18. Alternately, workers can seek a medical or religious exception.

“We’re already in a crisis situation with workers,” said Commissioner Rick Dyer, who joined Commissioner Colleen Roberts in deciding Tuesday to declare an emergency.

Dyer and Roberts said they fear many critically needed workers will leave their jobs rather than get vaccinated.

Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said he won’t support an emergency declaration or letter to the governor voicing opposition to the mandate.

“It’s going to accomplish nothing, so I don’t see a reason to do it,” Dotterrer said.

He said other letters sent to the governor by commissioners opposing her various COVID-19 mandates haven’t worked.

Dyer and Roberts said, at the least, a state vaccination mandate should allow exemptions for people who have already had COVID-19 and therefore have some immunity against the virus.

COVID-19 vaccinations do not contain the COVID-19 virus. They teach the body’s immune system to recognize and fight the virus, but without the danger of infection.

Even if the governor rescinded or delayed the state vaccination mandate, a federal mandate affecting about two-thirds of the American workforce goes into effect in November. Workers need to get vaccinated or face regular testing.

Several other boards of commissioners in Oregon counties have declared emergencies over fears the vaccination mandate could drive workers from their jobs.

Since the governor announced the mandate, Jackson County commissioners said they have heard from a range of people who say hospital workers, dental hygienists and support staff at an ophthalmologist’s office could be among those who quit or are fired. The lack of workers could force a reduction in services or even the closure of small medical practices.

Although a summer COVID-19 surge has been tapering off in recent weeks, hospitals statewide remain under significant strain and already face staffing shortages.

Some constituents have asked Jackson County commissioners to support the state COVID-19 vaccination mandate, but Roberts said most public input has been against the governor’s order.

Along with declaring a state of emergency, Roberts and Dyer agreed to say they want the Oregon Legislature to reexamine an unusual state law that governs mandatory vaccination.

Most businesses in Oregon are allowed to require vaccinations of their employees. A grocery store, for example, can require vaccination.

However, a 1989 state law bars hospitals and other health care organizations from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment — except when there is a mandate by the governor or the federal government. The law applies to health care workers, along with many first responders.

Dyer and Roberts said all businesses and nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, should be able to make the individual choice to require vaccinations among their workers.

Asante, which operates three hospitals in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass, said it can’t comment on whether it favors changing the Oregon law or if it favors the governor’s new vaccination mandate.

The health care system provided written responses to questions from the Mail Tribune.

Asante can’t require workers to be vaccinated against infectious diseases, including measles and chicken pox, but it does require an employee’s “immune status” be disclosed.

“This allows the infection prevention team to ensure that we notify all health care workers if we have a patient in isolation with one of those diseases, so that we ensure they do not come in contact with those patients,” Asante said.

Asante said employees who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 will be taken off the work schedule and put on temporary leave.

Asante is reviewing and granting medical and religious exemptions where appropriate.

It does expect some workers to leave employment due to the governor’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, but it doesn’t know yet how many will do so. Asante said it has already seen a few resignations from employees who chose not to get vaccinated and don’t have a medical or religious exemption.

The vaccination rate for its employees continues to increase daily, Asante said.

“As of today, we are at 83% of employees who are fully compliant with the mandate,” Asante said Monday.

Providence, a multistate hospital network that includes Providence Medford Medical Center, provided a statement to the Mail Tribune saying it’s currently working through the logistics to implement the Oregon vaccine mandate.

“At present, the COVID vaccination rate for our Southern Oregon caregivers, including employees working in hospital, clinic and nonclinical settings, is approaching 80%. We are encouraged that more caregivers are choosing to be vaccinated,” Providence said Tuesday.

Providence noted caregivers have the option to submit requests for medical and religious exemptions.

“It's too early to know what we might see until we go through that process. We are working to minimize the impact on our workforce, and we are confident that Providence is well positioned to continue serving the needs of our community. We are grateful for the continued support of our community,” Providence said.

Medford-based Mercy Flights, which operates ground and air ambulance services, said it’s working with its valued employees on the vaccination mandate issue, including helping them navigate the medical and religious exemption request process.

“Regarding the impact of the vaccination mandate on our organization, at this point the specific impact is uncertain because the situation is dynamic and changes every day. As of today, the number vaccinated in our organization is 68%. And, we still have time to work with our employees in preparation for the state and federal deadlines associated with the new regulations,” Mercy Flights Sheila Clough said in a written response to Mail Tribune questions.

During the COVID-19 surge, Mercy Flights has faced increased calls for service, but has been able to recruit new staff for most of its departments, she said.

Clough said if employees do leave, it may not be entirely due to the vaccination mandates.

“It is hard to predict if we will lose employees solely because of the regulations related to vaccinations. There are many factors that go into an employee deciding to leave an organization,” she said. “Across the nation, there has been a rise in employees making professional changes over the past year. We are aware some of our employees are contemplating their employment options. We are working with these employees to help support their choices.”

Clough said Mercy Flights has served the community for more than 70 years and plans to do what it takes to work through the current dynamics impacting employees, the region, the state and the nation.

The Oregon Nurses Association, which represents 15,000 health care workers, said Tuesday that registered nurses have a vaccination rate of more than 80% statewide.

The governor’s office issued a written response to media inquiries following the spate of emergency declarations in several Oregon counties.

“The governor’s goal is to keep our schools, businesses, and communities open,” wrote Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for the governor’s office. “Our hospitals are full, and our doctors, nurses and health care workers are being stretched beyond their limits. Hospitalizations increased nearly 1,000% between July 9 and their September peak. The vast majority of Oregonians hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated. People are dying right now when we have safe, effective and free vaccines readily available. The governor is responding to a public health crisis.”

Boyle added, “Unvaccinated people in the workplace put themselves and everyone around them at risk for COVID-19 — and, quite frankly, COVID-19 outbreaks in workplaces across the state are happening right now and are already a disruption to the workforce. Vaccination is the key to putting this pandemic behind us.”

During Tuesday’s online meeting, Jackson County commissioners were briefed that the county recorded 55 new COVID-19 cases Monday and eight COVID-19-related deaths, including a 35-year-old man and a 41-year-old man. Jackson County Public Health said all eight people had underlying conditions.

Update: Jackson County Public Health later issued a correction that the 35-year-old man had no underlying conditions.

“It is tragic to see that younger people are being affected and dying from this,” Dyer said, noting all the deaths are tragic.

Dyer said he does follow the statistics that show COVID-19 patients in hospitals, in intensive care and on ventilators are predominantly unvaccinated.

“I want people to get the information that they need from their doctors, from somebody they trust, whoever it is, to be able to make that informed decision,” he said of deciding whether to get vaccinated.

Roberts said the people who died had preexisting conditions.

“They have co-morbidities. They’re not dying from COVID,” she said.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said the term preexisting conditions applies to a broad array of health conditions and doesn’t mean all the people were seriously ill before catching COVID-19 and dying.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, preexisting conditions that increase people’s risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 include obesity, pregnancy, diabetes, lung diseases from asthma to cystic fibrosis, being a current or former smoker, alcohol or drug abuse, cancer, heart conditions and possibly high blood pressure.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.