PORTLAND, Ore. — Gov. Kate Brown announced a vaccine mandate on Thursday for K-12 school staff and volunteers, and health care workers in Oregon. The update comes as the state deals with a surge in new COVID-19 cases and record-breaking hospitalizations.
All K-12 employees and volunteers and health care workers will be required to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or six weeks after the vaccine gets full FDA approval, whichever is later. The requirement means unvaccinated health care workers will no longer have the option to get tested for COVID-19.
School staff, volunteers, and health care workers may opt out if they have an approved exemption.
Gov. Brown said the vaccine mandate for teachers is an important step to protect students. Kids under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
The governor also outlined steps Oregon is taking to help hospitals overwhelmed by the growing number of COVID-19 patients. She has formed a Hospital Crisis Prevention and Response group made up of health care stakeholders who will suggest new measures to help hospitals. The state will establish temporary decompression units to free up bed space. Oregon has also requested federal resources and support from FEMA and the Biden administration.
The update comes one day after Portland Public Schools (PPS) announced all employees will be required to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Aug. 13 unless they have an approved exemption.
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"We will need confirmation from a qualified medical care provider on any medical exemption. And, we will be reviewing that each religious exemption that is requested is based on bonified beliefs," said PPS Chief Human Resources Officer Sharon Reese.
PPS employees who are unable to get vaccinated for personal health reasons, or those who do not provide proof of full vaccination, will be required to get tested for COVID-19. PPS has not said exactly how often employees will be tested.
"There are those who will disagree with the actions I am taking today but school is starting across the state, COVID-19 poses a risk to our kids and our kids need to be protected and they need to be in school," said Gov. Brown. "That’s why I am willing to take the heat for this decision."
Also part of the press conference was Dr. Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive for St. Charles in Bend. His plea mirrored that of OHA and Gov. Brown, which is to get vaccinated and wear a mask to lessen the burden on hospitals.
"I can't overstate this, what we’re going through right now is unimaginable," said Absalon. "We are overwhelmed and this is really a dire situation."
He explained the avalanche of scenarios that are backing up local hospitals: more COVID-19 patients means delaying regularly scheduled surgeries, almost 3,000, according to Absalon. This leads to other patients coming in more sick due to delayed care, however, there are few beds for them. In some regions, there are 2-0 beds available, leading to patients being parked in hallways, staying in emergency beds, and rooms being turned into surgical rooms.
"The time to act is now," said Absalon. "Our healthcare workers are suffering from moral injury because they have not been able to care for the patients in front of them the way they need."
Gov. Brown, OHA, state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger, and Absalon all urged unvaccinated people to get vaccinated, everyone to wear a mask and for people who are unwilling to get vaccinated, it is encouraged to stay away from large crowds and reduce all unnecessary socializing.
ODE later released a statement in support of Gov. Brown's vaccine mandate. It said, in part:
“OEA believes that today’s vaccine requirement will help provide stability for our students this fall and will help improve safety in our schools and in our communities. The science on this issue is clear. Vaccines, coupled with other proven public health mitigation strategies, are the best way to ensure our schools stay open and are a safe place for students to learn and for educators to teach.
“We urge districts throughout the state to work collaboratively with educators on how this mandate is implemented at the local level and to continue efforts to maintain additional public health mitigation strategies such as the use of personal protective equipment, frequent testing, social distancing, ensuring proper ventilation and frequent disinfecting in our public schools.”
On Wednesday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said all K-12 school employees and staff of the state's higher education institutions have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated or face losing their job.
President Biden announced on Wednesday that nursing home staff will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. The new mandate could take effect as soon as next month.