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Gov. Brown: Health care workers will need to get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing

Oregon health care workers have until Sept. 30 to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19, otherwise face weekly testing.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Health care workers will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday.

The governor has directed the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to issue the new rule this week with the requirement taking effect on Sept. 30, the governor’s office said in a statement. 

That gives unvaccinated health care workers almost two months to get fully vaccinated before they would be subject to weekly testing.

The decision comes as the number of daily COVID-19 cases approaches Oregon’s all-time high. On Tuesday, the state reported 1,575 new and presumptive COVID-19 cases and 379 hospitalizations — the highest daily case count Oregon has seen since January.  

In a statement on Wednesday, Gov. Brown said the more contagious delta variant has “changed everything” and called the new rule a necessary safety measure to protect health care workers and their patients.

“Severe illness from COVID-19 is now largely preventable, and vaccination is clearly our best defense. Vaccination and weekly testing ensure Oregonians can safely access health care and employees can go to work in an environment that maximizes health and safety measures for COVID-19,” said Gov. Brown.

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The new rule will apply to all personnel in health care settings who have direct or indirect contact with patients or infectious materials.

There are about 266,000 licensed and unlicensed health care workers in the state, according to employment data cited by the governor's office.

Employees who choose to remain unvaccinated and submit to weekly testing will not be required to pay for the tests, per state law.  Gov. Brown's office said individual employers will make their own arrangements, which may include "insurance coverage or other arrangements."

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KGW asked some of the largest health systems in the state whether they would require vaccines for employees and all said they plan to in some form or another — including Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health, PeaceHealth, Salem Health and Providence. Although, policies and exemptions vary between hospitals. 

The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), which has encouraged vaccination but has not supported hospital vaccine mandates, said it supports the governor's announcement. 

"This is a reasonable and sensible approach which respects the individual choices of health care workers while also protecting public health. ONA believes COVID-19 vaccinations are critical to protecting our members, our patients, our families and our communities and we urge all Oregonians who can get vaccinated to do so now," said Scott Palmer of the Oregon Nurses Association.

The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems (OAHHS) also commended Gov. Brown's action.

“Throughout the pandemic, Oregon’s hospitals have been committed to safeguarding the health of our patients, visitors and workers. We support today’s action by Governor Brown, which will require health care workers in Oregon to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested regularly for the virus. With these additional tools we can better respond to this evolving pandemic and provide the safest possible environment for those who depend on us," said Becky Hultberg, President and CEO of OAHHS, in a statement. 

Gov. Brown has not mandated the COVID vaccine for state employees, although last week she told KGW’s Cristin Severance that she’s continuing to have “conversations with [state] partners about that work.”

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The announcement from Gov. Brown’s office outlining the new rule for health care workers did not directly address the multiple local health systems that have instituted their own vaccination requirements, despite an Oregon law that prohibits vaccine mandates as a condition of employment. Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Kaiser Permanente and PeaceHealth had all previously announced vaccine requirements for health care workers. Legacy announced Wednesday it would also instate a vaccine requirement for employees. 

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The governor’s office did reference the law and said the governor intends to address the issue in the February 2022 legislative session.

"State law currently prohibits employers from independently mandating vaccines for certain limited categories of workers, including health care workers, an issue the Governor intends to work with stakeholders and legislators to address in the February 2022 session," the statement from the governor's office read.

Gov. Brown also called on private employers to encourage their staff to get vaccinated by removing barriers to access and creating incentives.

"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," said Gov. Brown.