A sign on Hwy. 26 outside of Portland encourages people to get their COVID-19 vaccination, June 28, 2021.

A sign on Hwy. 26 outside of Portland encourages people to get their COVID-19 vaccination, June 28, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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Monday, October 18, is the deadline for many workers in the state to be vaccinated or risk losing their jobs. We’ll talk to Beth Graser, communications officer at the Hillsboro School District, Todd Fuller, Vale city manager, Mike Lepin, Chief of the Jefferson County EMS district, and Charlie Tveit, Chief Executive Officer of Lake Health District, about how their staffing and services will be affected by the deadline.

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Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Time is up for all unvaccinated health care and K-12 workers in Oregon, along with many state workers. Today is the day Governor Kate Brown’s vaccine mandate kicks in, meaning if those workers want to keep their jobs, they either need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or have received a medical or religious exemption. We’re going to hear what this means for four different employers from four very different parts of the state right now, including Lake, Jefferson, and Washington counties.

We start in Malheur County, near the Idaho border. A few weeks ago, the county commission there declared a state of emergency saying that they were in danger of having no emergency services if Governor Brown did not exempt them from the mandate. She did not. So, what happened? Todd Fuller is here to answer that question. He is the city manager of Vale. Todd Fuller, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Todd Fuller: Thank you so much, Dave, glad to be here.

Miller: It’s good to have you on. So, is there emergency medical service in Vale right now?

Fuller: Yes, currently there is emergency medical service. We had a big scare a few weeks ago, and we were sitting at about 30% vaccinated for our 24 employees. And as we got closer to the deadline, we had more and more people enquiring, they really wanted to keep their jobs, but they weren’t going to get vaccinated. And so this exemption form, religious exemption form, was a means to keep them working. So that’s kind of the path we’ve chosen to go with.

Miller: Before we get to the exemption form, because it seems like, as you say, the biggest path to actually keeping people in their jobs, did the vaccine mandate increase the vaccination rate at all? I mean that was the purpose of it, and then there were these exemptions for people who qualified. But did any people get vaccinated because of the mandate?

Fuller: I did not go and question anybody as far as if the mandate did change their mind. I know several weeks ago we were sitting at about 30% vaccinated, and as of last Friday, we were sitting at about 50% vaccinated. So if I was to speculate, I would say yes, it did change a few minds.

Miller: I mean you’re being very careful. You can’t say it’s causal, but the rate did increase to some extent.

Let’s turn to the exemption process. So my understanding is that 50%, 12 of 24 staff of Vale Fire and Ambulance, sought religious exemptions. What was the process like for those employees?

Fuller: Well basically, I had my fire chief get with each individual and find out what their plan was. And the majority of them, the 12, did finally, write out their statement on this exemption form, and turn them in. And those are kept at City Hall.

Miller: Did you or anybody else in the city do anything to assess the sincerity of religious beliefs? This has become a nationwide issue with different versions of state or local religious exemptions. And it’s a very tricky issue that we talked to a lawyer about a few weeks ago. Did you do anything to question the validity of these exemptions?

Fuller: No, we did not. I did put it in front of City Council, and so everybody had a chance to look at that and offer any advice. Did we want to go down a path of mandatory testing for those that weren’t vaccinated? And so at this point, it was just a matter of them filling out the form with their statement on there, and turning that into City Hall.

Miller: The state has said that employers of healthcare providers who receive religious exemptions “must take reasonable steps to ensure that unvaccinated health care providers and health care staff are protected from contracting and spreading COVID-19.” Will the city of Vale be treating unvaccinated staff differently in any way from vaccinated staff?

Fuller: At this point, no. Our AMS and fire crews, they wear their full PPE when they are out on calls and dealing with the public. So at this point, they’re already following the protocols they need to to protect themselves.

Miller: So overall, how do you feel about the way this went?

Fuller: Well, I guess I could say I don’t really agree with the mandate. I would have liked to have seen something maybe a little bit different as far as trying to get people vaccinated. But overall, I’m pleased that we now are pretty much 100, still have our full crews here.

Miller: 100% crews, if 50% vaccinated. Todd Fuller, thanks very much for starting us off today. I appreciate it.

Fuller: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Miller: For another perspective on what the vaccine mandate for health care and school employees actually means, now that the deadline has arrived, I’m joined by Charlie Tveit. He is the Chief Executive Officer of the Lake Health District. Charlie Tveit, welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Charlie Tveit: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Miller: What do the numbers look like right now in the Lake Health District?

Tveit: Well, as of maybe an hour ago, we had out of the 400 employees and volunteers as part of our Health District, 4 had not yet either gotten vaccinated or signed an exemption.

Miller: So only 4 of 400 have yet to be vaccinated or filed for an exemption. So a small number. But what is the vaccination number?

Tveit: Vaccination number is about 58%. As you asked earlier of Todd, did the mandate encourage people to get vaccinated? I think as time progressed, more and more people did get vaccinated. I think there was more credible information about the value of it. But many people that don’t believe in the vaccination, I’m glad that we had an option for them, because they’re vital to keep working for us.

Miller: How did the exemption process work for you? As Todd Fuller explained it, people gave the forms as provided by OHA, and they took them, and that was that. What about in Lake County?

Tveit: The position we took is that, whether a person has a medical or religious exemption, that’s really a private issue. I don’t need to know what their medical reasons are. And so that information, they completed, and that resides with our human resources department. And so each person filled it out with their own personal reasons.

Miller: I have to say that a different stance than some health care providers in this state are taking. And it’s a tricky question of balancing an employee’s personal beliefs or medical needs with what you assess to be your responsibilities as a health care provider to your patients. How did you think about the flip side of that?

Tveit: So my responsibility is to keep our employees and our community that come to the hospital or health district safe. We require everyone to wear masks. We require hand washing and all the other PPE that would be appropriate. So whether a person is vaccinated or has signed an exemption, everyone is treated the same and we keep everyone as safe as possible.

Miller: The state did outline a whole series of potential added safety measures that healthcare employers like yourself can use with their unvaccinated employees. They listed things like modified shifts, periodic testing for COVID-19, the opportunity to telework so unvaccinated health care professionals wouldn’t actually be in physical contact with, say immunocompromised people, or reassignment. At OHSU, for example, staff with approved exemptions, meaning a medical or religious one, were either placed on leave or removed off campus. You can’t work on site for OHSU right now unless you’re fully vaccinated. Have you considered doing any of those measures outlined as possibilities by the Oregon Health authority?

Tveit: Dave, we thought about that. But we’re a very small community. And not only are we a hospital, but we provide mental health services for the county. We provide public health service. We have long term care and assisted living. We provide the EMS Service. We have too many people that are exposed to the public whether, as a patient or client or at any point in time they could be exposed to the public. So it isn’t a practical option for us.

Miller: What about the patients or members of the public who are at most risk of a severe version of COVID-19? Say, very immunocompromised patients. Would you let say an unvaccinated nurse treat an immunocompromised patient?

Tveit: Absolutely. We provide all the appropriate protection for both the patient and the caregiver. Caregivers are so vital to us, and they’ve been doing this for a long time, and they’ve been keeping patients safe. Lake County has been very fortunate to have a very small number of positive cases that have come to the hospital. Our death rate thankfully has been very low. And so I think we are able to provide good quality care in a safe fashion.

Miller: Charlie Tveit, thanks for your time today.

Tveit: Thank you.

Miller: We’re gonna turn to Mike Lepin now, he is the chief of the Jefferson County EMS District. Mike Lepin, Welcome to Think Out Loud again.

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Mike Lepin: Thank you.

Miller: So let’s start with the numbers for you. What percentage of your full time staff is vaccinated right now?

Lepin: Oh gee. I have a total of 42 people who are either full time, part time, or volunteers on my roster. And of them, 5 are not vaccinated. That I’m aware of. Of those 5, 2 of them, I have not heard from them. So they have been suspended until I hear further from them.

Miller: Your percentage of fully vaccinated staff members, either full time or part time or volunteers, is way higher than what we heard in Lake County and in the city of Vale. How do you explain that?

Lepin: I’m not sure. And I don’t think we’re a great representation of the area because of that. And very few of these were even at the end, we have a lot of people that were vaccinated early on from, January on through April. The later ones are like June through August. I have I think 2 that were completed in October.

Miller: So in other words, even before the mandate may have gotten some people to choose to get vaccinated, you’re saying you already had a very high rate of vaccination. But it also sounds like you’re saying that that’s not necessarily the case broadly in Jefferson County.

Lepin: Right, I would say it broadly in the central Oregon area. But I don’t know, I haven’t got the full count on everybody at other agencies and that kind of thing. I’ve just been more worried about my own agency, if you know what I mean.

Miller: I am wondering because, last month, the Jefferson County Commission put out an emergency declaration, the way Malheur County did and a number of others in central and eastern Oregon, saying essentially we are going to be in a potential disaster scenario, Governor Brown, if you don’t lift this mandate. And they specifically said “Fire and EMS have a large group of unvaccinated staff.”

Lepin: Well, we are separate from the Fire Department. And so I do know the Fire Department had some people that were against the vaccination. I don’t know how many people that were. But I do know they have some people that are concerned. So I don’t know what those numbers are.

Miller: But in terms of EMS, even as of a couple weeks ago, you basically were close to full vaccination?

Lepin: Except for those 5, yeah.

Miller: What kinds of conversations are you having with those 5?

Lepin: Well of those 5, 3 of them extended a religious exemption which I approved. The other two are really inactive. I don’t hear from them or see them often. So even if they were on the roster, it wouldn’t really be in effect to our agency.

Miller: So it seems like it’s full steam ahead for emergency services for your EMS District.

Lepin: Correct.

Miller: Mike Lepin, thanks for joining us.

Lepin: Sure.

Miller: We’re going to end our vaccine mandate tour today with Beth Graser. She is the communications officer with the Hillsboro School District. Beth Graser, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Beth Graser: Thank you Dave. Nice to be here.

Miller: It’s good to have you on. What’s the vaccination rate for the Hillsboro School District right now?

Graser: Well, right now we are just finishing processing all of our employees’ responses to our survey. But we are sitting at about 95% overall vaccinated.

Miller: How does that compare to before the governor announced the school worker vaccination mandate?

Graser: Well, we weren’t tracking staff vaccination information prior to that. So all I would really have is anecdotal information about that.

Miller: Well if that’s all we have, can we hear a little bit of it? Do you get the sense that there has been an increase in vaccinations since the mandate was announced, and since people had this pretty stark choice, get vaccinated, apply for an exemption, or you can’t work here anymore?

Graser: I’m sure it did encourage some people to go ahead and get vaccinated. But I think we had some pretty high adoption numbers amongst our staff starting last spring. We cooperated in a county-wide effort to provide opportunities for our educators and support staff to get vaccinated at the large vaccination sites at the Convention Center, and we had great participation in those events. So while I do believe there was some action, and indeed, we do have a small subset of folks that are currently in the process of becoming fully vaccinated, so I do know that the mandate did spur some people on in that way.

Miller: Have you also had employees who have quit their jobs rather than get vaccinated?

Graser: Yes. But out of our approximately 2600 staff members, that only accounts for 10 people.

Miller: 10 people, can you give us a sense for the kinds of jobs they did?

Graser: Yeah, that’s really heavily in our classified ranks. So 9 out of 10 would be classified employees, and one is a licensed staff member.

Miller: Classified means people who work in cafeterias or drive buses or do school support, as opposed to being in the classroom?

Graser: That’s correct.

Miller: So 10 people out of 2600. I imagine that in terms of HR and staffing, it hasn’t been a huge hit to the running of the district.

Graser: No, it’s not. The things that are really a bit more problematic for us are kind of the systemic staffing issues that we’re experiencing, that you’ve been reporting on in other sectors and in other districts around the state, really, when it comes to bus driver shortages, nutrition service worker shortages, custodial shortages. So we already have open positions in those areas, so any further loss of staffing due to either a desire to not cooperate with the mandate or potentially for other reasons, that staff may be out on leave that may or may not have anything to do with COVID exposure. Any additional loss in those areas just becomes really hard to absorb.

Miller: So my back of the envelope math may not be accurate here, but it seems like you still could have hundreds of district employees who sought exemptions. Is that right?

Graser: We only had about 110 folks that have submitted for exceptions.

Miller: And what has the school district’s approach to exemptions been?

Graser: I just want to be clear that we use the term exception and not exemption, that was specific language that has been handed down from Oregon Health Authority. So to the extent that that matters, I just wanted to clarify that.

Staff members who wanted to seek a medical or religious exception would fill out the appropriate form. So if it were for a medical reason, then that needed to be corroborated and signed by a medical professional. However, for the religious exception, the employees simply needed to state their sincerely held religious belief, and why that precludes them from vaccination.

And then we had the supervisor of that staff member and the staff member schedule a meeting with our legal and risk management. Staff member, to go over the terms of the requested exception and what that staff member would have to do, kind of the additional mitigation measures that staff member would need to take. The reason we had the supervisor involved in those meetings is so they would understand what the employee was agreeing to in terms of those additional measures, and so that the supervisor could evaluate whether or not a change in assignment might be required just based on the nature of their job.

Miller: As we heard from the Vale city manager and the Lake Health District, employees in those two places who applied for and were granted exceptions didn’t have to do anything else. They could continue with their jobs, and they were treated no differently from people who were fully vaccinated. It seems like you’re saying that’s not the case in Hillsboro. So what additional secure safety protocols is a district adding?

Graser: So there’s a bit of a list for staff members receiving an approved exception. They do have to enroll themselves in the weekly testing program that’s available through the state. They have to wear a fitted N95 or KN95 mask at all times. They can only take their mask off indoors if they are in a room with four walls that go floor to ceiling and have a door that can be closed and locked, or that can have a note put on the outside to indicate that others are not allowed into that room. And at that point, if the staff member has been unmasked to eat, for example, if it’s a teacher utilizing that space to eat, then they will need to re-mask 10 minutes prior to other students or staff entering that space. And the reasoning behind that timeframe is that our HVAC systems cycle the air through completely six times every hour. And so with re-masking, 10 minutes prior to others entering the room, that would give the air enough time to circulate through the filters. They need to have extra distancing between themselves and other staff members and students. And so there’s quite a list.

Miller: Let me just ask you briefly because we’re almost out of time, but when the supervisor and legal person went through all this with these employees, did anyone say “That seems like too much, I’ll just get vaccinated”?

Graser: Well that I don’t know. But we did list out the additional mitigation measures that would be required of folks seeking an exception ahead of time. So people did know what they were getting into in advance.

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