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Oregon health care workers to get COVID vaccine or be tested

August 4, 2021 GMT

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon health care workers will be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing, Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday.

Officials say the new rule will apply beginning Sept. 30 — giving time for employers to prepare for implementation and for unvaccinated health care workers to become fully vaccinated.

“The more contagious delta variant has changed everything. This new safety measure is necessary to stop delta from causing severe illness among our first line of defense: our doctors, nurses, medical students, and frontline health care workers,” Brown said.

Brown directed the Oregon Health Authority to issue the new rule which applies broadly to personnel in health care settings who have direct or indirect contact with patients or infectious materials. The rule requires weekly COVID-19 testing for personnel and can be waived with proof of vaccination.

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A state law enacted in 1989 prohibits employers from independently mandating vaccines for certain limited categories of workers, including health care workers. But, a spokesperson from the governor’s office says the new rule does not conflict with the law.

“This is not a requirement for vaccination, rather, the OHA administrative rule gives health care personnel a choice between weekly testing or providing proof of vaccination,” said Charles Boyle, Brown’s deputy communications director.

In addition, Brown says she intends to work with stakeholders and lawmakers to address the existing law during the February 2022 legislative session.

As COVID-19 surges across the state, leading health organizations — including the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems — have been pressing state leaders to open the door for health care organizations to enact vaccination mandates.

The Oregon Nurses Association and Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems applauded the governor’s directive.

“This is a reasonable and sensible approach which respects the individual choices of health care workers while also protecting public health,” the Oregon Nurses Association said in a statement.

On Monday, officials at Kaiser Permanente, one of Oregon’s largest private health systems, announced that health care workers, along with the rest of its staff, would be required to get vaccinated. The only exemptions are for medical or religious reasons.

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“Making vaccination mandatory is the most effective way we can protect our people, our patients, and the communities we serve,” CEO Greg A. Adams said in an online statement.

Kaiser serves approximately 12.5 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. So far nearly 78% of the 216,000 employees have been vaccinated and 95% of Permanente Medical Group’s 23,000 physicians.

In a statement sent to Oregon Public Broadcasting, Kaiser’s Director of Integrated Communications Michael G. Foley acknowledged Oregon’s 1989 law, but said “because of the growing seriousness of the current situation, the new risks and increased cases caused by the delta variant, as well as the priority to keep patients and employees safe, we will act to apply the vaccination requirement in the Northwest region.”

Kaiser is working with state health officials and the governor to “support vaccination to the fullest extent permitted by law and any future guidance,” Foley said.

On Tuesday, Oregon reported 1,575 coronavirus cases — the state’s highest daily case count since January. In addition, hospital beds are filling up quickly with 379 people hospitalized on Tuesday due to COVID-19. Some hospital officials, including those at Oregon Health & Science University, said they are postponing some surgeries that are not urgent.

Health officials are urging residents to get vaccinated. Currently, around 29% of Oregon adults remain unvaccinated.

Brown said that she is looking at additional health and safety options to protect Oregonians, including vaccination and testing policies for state workers.

“As we have throughout this pandemic, we are learning to adapt to the new reality the delta variant has created,” Brown said. “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.”