Deschutes County employees looking for an incentive to get the COVID vaccine – other than a desire to help slow a rapid rise of the virus in their community – are out of luck.
Commissioner Phil Chang brought up the idea of a vaccine incentive on Wednesday following a county health COVID update, saying the county “should be doing everything we can to improve the vaccination rates in our community to help contain COVID.”
“It’s having devastating impacts on our health care system, our populations…it’ll probably have a significant impact on businesses, school openings,” he said of new data showing the delta variant’s spread. “Short of a mandate, this should be a very simple choice.”
But his colleagues Tony DeBone and Patti Adair showed no interest and the idea stalled after a short discussion.
“If people are notified if people are paying attention…if they wanted to get a vaccine they would have by now,” DeBone said. “By ratcheting up the incentives until they get a vaccine – what’s the difference from that and a mandate?”
Chang brought up the idea last week but didn’t expect it to get much traction.
County governments across the state – including Jefferson County – have used federal grant money to fund financial incentives to get residents vaccinated.
Multnomah County, Oregon’s largest, recently mandated the vaccine for its 6,000 employees.
And many private businesses have offered their own incentives for employees to increase vaccination rates.
It’s unclear what percentage of county employees are vaccinated, but Chang said any employee not vaccinated represents a financial risk to the county.
He asked county human resources to look into some of the costs the county could incur if one of its 1,100 employees contracted COVID and was hospitalized.
Chang said that data revealed one COVID hospitalization might cost $35,000-$45,000 before the employee’s co-pay, and the county health trust fund would cover the rest.
If the employee ended up in the ICU and on a ventilator, those costs would shoot up to $95,000-$125,000.
“Those hospital stays and ICU stays are largely preventable through vaccination,” Chang said.
Chang said an employee incentive program would help the county run in a more “business-like fashion” and reduce the risk to taxpayers of COVID-related costs.
Earlier in the meeting, the county health team presented the latest COVID data that shows cases skyrocketing and hospitalizations at record highs.
Currently, 1 in 48 residents of Deschutes County has COVID-19.
And while breakthrough cases are going up, officials pointed out that the unvaccinated patients make up a bulk of the more severe cases and hospitalizations.
Adair responded to Chang’s request by saying she knows several people who had horrible reactions to the flu shot.
“I don’t want someone in the county who has that kind of medical history have to get (the vaccine,)” she said, adding later, “It’s a choice.”
Chang pointed out the county already offers incentives for employees to complete annual health assessments and the response has been great; the county covers the employees’ $90 insurance premium co-pays for one month.
“It’s meaningful and it results in healthcare cost savings for us an employer,” he said.
Wednesday wasn’t the first time Chang’s colleague’s rebuffed efforts to promote COVID precautions.
Earlier this month the panel was at odds over Chang’s suggestion to issue a “strong recommendation” that Deschutes County residents mask up indoors – after county health leaders and the Bend City Council asked the commission to do so.
Adair said at the time – a year and a half into the pandemic – she still needed to do more research on the efficacy of cloth masks and had just received several new studies from a doctor.
DeBone said he didn’t believe county residents needed yet another agency telling them what to do.
(Since then, the state has issued new mask mandates for public spaces indoors and out.)
After last week’s meeting in which he initially floated the incentive idea, Chang said he received more than 500 emails, many from people who believed he was asking for a county employee vaccination mandate.
He reiterated that was not his request last week, nor this week.
“It’s not a mandate. In fact, if you provide incentives, there are more choices available,” he said. “To fight incentivization on the basis of choice or on the basis of a perceived impingement of people’s freedom is ridiculous.”