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Small communities across Oregon worry vaccine mandate will lead to extreme first responder staff shortage

Counties in Eastern Oregon are asking Gov. Brown for an exemption as the Oct. 18 vaccine mandate looms.

WARRENTON, Ore. — As of Oct. 18, most Oregon state employees who aren't vaccinated against COVID-19 could lose their jobs.

Groups of nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters—who are already shorthanded, could be even worse off once we reach the vaccine mandate deadline. And leaders in rural Oregon have said they already know what's going to happen.

Malheur County Commissioners in Eastern Oregon have declared a state of emergency, asking Gov. Kate Brown for vaccine exemptions in order to keep teachers, healthcare workers and others employed.

RELATED: What are the approved exemptions for the COVID vaccine?

On the other side of the state, they're dealing with similar issues. Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer put out a Facebook video this week that's going viral. 

Credit: KGW
Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer

Balensifer said the city only has three paid firefighters and 20 unpaid volunteers. Of the total, nine are vaccinated, and 14 are not. Thirteen said they definitely won't get the vaccine and will lose their jobs on Oct. 18, unless something changes. Two others said they'll quit in solidarity, which leaves eight people to respond to emergencies in Warrenton. The vaccine mandate does not distinguish between a paid employee and a volunteer. 

"[Volunteers] come as they desire and they come as as they are, as they're willing, and we're grateful for that. And if they are no longer willing because they're being terminated because the state's mandating [vaccines]— it just puts us in a real pickle," Balensifer said.

Balensifer said if they lose most of their volunteers, the health of people in Warrenton is going to be at a higher risk than it would from catching COVID-19.

"I would argue more people are going to be harmed from not having them respond to calls and more buildings are gonna burn down to the ground from the total force reductions, because we don't have them. You know, when you're in a small town, in a small community, you don't have the means to pay for and have those services that bigger cities have. Those are things that people take for granted and are privileged to have," Balensifer said. 

It's also important to remember, volunteer firefighters and EMS workers are highly-trained and certified. That training takes months, so it's not as easy as any vaccinated person just taking over that job.

Balensifer said volunteers use personal protective equipment, which has kept them from spreading COVID-19 so far during the pandemic. He wants the governor to grant him an exemption to the mandate, and let them keep using the procedures they've been using for the past year.

RELATED: Thousands of state workers seek exemptions to Washington vaccine mandate

RELATED: Oregon gives 24,000 state employees six more weeks to get fully vaccinated