Brown to require weekly COVID tests for unvaccinated health care workers

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Get vaccinated, or get tested – every week.

That’s the choice Gov. Kate Brown will give Oregon health care workers starting next month in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“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. “Protecting our frontline health care workers through vaccination will also enhance the safety of the patients in their care.”

Brown will direct the Oregon Health Authority to require the weekly testing beginning the week of September 30th. The test can be waived with proof of vaccination.

According to the most recent data from the OHA, about 70% of the state’s 120,000 health care workers are vaccinated. 

At St. Charles, 76% of the 4,666 caregivers are fully vaccinated, according to Lisa Goodman, the hospital’s public information officer.

“This is welcomed news, as it allows us to further protect our workforce and our patients,” said Joe Sluka, St. Charles’ president and CEO.

A spokeswoman for Summit Health said they could not share the vaccination rate of their providers.

Across Deschutes County, the OHA reports 73% of the health care workers are vaccinated; 62% in Crook County and 64% in Jefferson County.

“This is a reasonable and sensible approach which respects the individual choices of health care workers while also protecting public health,” said Scott Palmer, with the Oregon Nurses Association union. “ONA believes COVID-19 vaccinations are critical to protecting our members, our patients, our families and our communities and we urge all Oregonians who can get vaccinated to do so now.”

The governor’s office said employment-related vaccination requirements are generally allowed under state and federal law, but state law currently prohibits employers from independently mandating vaccines for certain limited categories of workers, including health care workers.

Brown intends to work with stakeholders and legislators to address this issue in the February 2022 session.

The union representing Oregon’s hospitals and health systems applauded the governor’s decision.

“Throughout the pandemic, Oregon’s hospitals have been committed to safeguarding the health of our patients, visitors and workers,” said Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. “With these additional tools, we can better respond to this evolving pandemic and provide the safest possible environment for those who depend on us.”

The new rule will apply to a wide range of health care professionals – everyone from dentists to chiropractors; nurses to EMTs.

“Severe illness from COVID-19 is now largely preventable, and vaccination is clearly our best defense,” Brown said. “Vaccination and weekly testing ensure Oregonians can safely access health care and employees can go to work in an environment that maximizes health and safety measures for COVID-19.

Several health care providers based in Oregon or that have Oregon facilities have already announced plans to require the vaccine.

In May, Oregon Health Sciences University said it will require the shots for anyone with an OHSU badge, including volunteers and vendors.

PeaceHealth, Kaiser Permanente and Legacy health have also announced plans to require the vaccine for employees.

“Though nearly 80% of PeaceHealth caregivers have already been vaccinated, the rise in hospitalizations in our communities is a stark reminder that we are facing a public health emergency and we must do more,” said Dr. Doug Koekkoek, PeaceHealth’s Chief Physician Executive.

Brown called for businesses to do come up with more ways to increase the vaccination rate across the state.

“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,” she said. “I am doing the same with the State of Oregon’s workforce, and I expect employers to find ways to remove barriers to easy access to vaccination.”

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