Rural Oregon Counties Alone If Covid Vaccine Mandate Causes Staff Shortage
Cities and counties are declaring emergencies, fearing the state’s vaccination deadline will force teachers, health workers and first responders to resign en masse. State officials say they can’t step in to help unless local governments are overwhelmed.
Jess Tolman, the chief of Vale Fire and Ambulance, warns of service alterations if the state’s vaccine mandate remains in place. (The Firm / Pat Caldwell)
SALEM – Rural counties that fear first responders will drop out en masse ahead of a vaccination mandate in mid-October must find their own solutions instead of relying on the state, state officials say.
Several rural counties have already declared emergencies based on their finding that firefighters, paramedics, teachers and healthcare workers will step down by October 18 instead of getting vaccinated against COVID. -19. In central Oregon, Jefferson County Emergency Director David Pond, a sergeant in the sheriff’s office, estimates that only 50% of county employees subject to vaccination requirements have received vaccines. That number could increase slightly before Oct. 18, but he said he still expects nearly half of the county’s first responders to choose to be fired or resign rather than comply with vaccination mandates. .
“On our best day, with no one on vacation, no one sick and a full staff, we’re always a very busy office,” he said. “If we were to work 50%, people would wait a long time for their services, and some of those services could be extremely important to you as the person who calls 911.”
After Jefferson County Commissioners declared an emergency in early September, Pond shared it with the state’s emergency management office. He heard Jefferson County, and others warning of an impending staff shortage, needed to prepare.
“It’s not like a natural disaster happens and you don’t know what’s going to happen today,” Pond said. “It’s not something that’s all of a sudden, bam, handle it. It’s “Hey, it’s happening, here’s your deadline, figure it out”, and by the way, it’s caused by human political action disrupting your first responder services in Jefferson County.
The state’s Emergency Management Office maintains that cities and counties are required by law to provide emergency services to their citizens, and the state should only step in when local governments are overwhelmed. Spokeswoman Chris Crabb wrote in an email that the office would assess requests for help from local governments, but that they should try to resolve their own issues first.
“We expect local government divisions to maintain their statutory responsibilities, initiate business continuity plans that address staff shortages and prioritization of essential services, and leverage available resources through peer support and the sector. private before increasing requests for state assistance, ”Crabb wrote.
If cities or counties are overwhelmed, they will contact the Oregon Emergency Response System to seek state or federal help, she said. The agency prioritizes requests related to saving lives.
Oregon County Association officials declined an interview and deferred to individual counties. Counties that have adopted a state of emergency have used almost identical language, although some refer to specific concerns.
For example, Baker County Resolution of September 22 states that the county ambulance service area will not be able to provide pre-hospital care along Interstate 84, five national freeways, and towns and unincorporated areas in the county. The statement also says the county’s only hospital, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center, will not be able to provide care, although the Argus Observer reported that the hospital was not consulted for this resolution and requested a retraction.
Harney County Judge Pete Runnels said his county was already grappling with cases of COVID-19. With large hospitals in Bend and Idaho unable to take patients, Harney District Hospital sends people home if their symptoms are not as severe as those of other patients.
Runnels, who has been a proponent of vaccines and has come under strong local criticism, said he anticipated more staff shortages if health workers and first responders were faced with the choice between vaccines and the loss of their own. use. As he and others try to convince recalcitrant workers to get vaccinated, the local hospital said in a recent memo it stands to lose around half of its staff to tenure.
Runnels said opponents of the vaccine remain firm in their opposition.
“We have an ambulance service and we will not be able to manage it properly,” he said. “So you’re 130 miles from another ambulance service. If you are in the southern part of Harney County, you are 230 miles away. So if you have a car accident or have a medical emergency, you have a problem. ”
Harney County is larger than nine US states, but has one of the smallest populations in Oregon, with just over 7,000 residents spread over more than 10,200 square miles. Only about half live in the incorporated towns of Burns and Hines.
This makes it more difficult to plan for a possible staff shortage, Runnels said. Harney County has yet to vote to declare a state of emergency, but commissioners asked staff to draft a resolution at their last meeting.
“Remember where we are and how far away we are from others,” he said. “We cannot contract with someone else; they are not close enough. There aren’t a lot of contingency plans. We need the state to step up and provide the National Guard or whoever can come and help. “
Governor Kate Brown has already deployed hundreds of Oregon National Guard personnel to help hospitals cope with COVID-19 outbreaks in late summer, but it’s unclear if they will be available to help with staff shortages caused by immunization mandates. Crabb referred to the state’s military department and a spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
A Baker County spokeswoman said the county feared it would not have an adequate workforce after mid-October, but it was too early to elaborate. Jackson County officials did not return phone calls or respond to email questions regarding their emergency declarations and subsequent planning.
Yamhill County Commission Chairman Mary Starrett, who led her county’s emergency resolution, said in an email she was trying to get ahead of potential staff shortages.
“Basically we’re saying that our (Office of Emergency Management) is responsible for providing resources in an emergency and will determine what those resources might entail based on the needs that arise,” he said. -she writes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more specific; we are all in uncharted territory.
Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla, the only Democrat on the board and running for governor, voted against the county’s resolution. Kulla said he had yet to see any evidence that Yamhill County would lose a significant number of emergency responders or teachers due to the vaccination mandate. He doesn’t think his fellow Republicans faced a looming emergency.
“It’s just because it’s another way to push back on the governor’s mandates around vaccines and Covid,” he said.
Kulla shared copies of emails Starrett exchanged with local school principals and the local hospital inquiring about potential staff shortages. The Willamina School District wrote that it expected two or three out of more than 110 employees would not be allowed to work after Oct. 18, the Newberg School District said a “handful” of employees would lose their jobs and the Amity School District Superintendent said he lost an employee because of the warrant.
The county emergency manager, meanwhile, said no agency or health care provider had contacted him with concerns about the understaffing. Even if first responders or healthcare workers resign, Kulla said the county has more than $ 10 million it can use to hire temporary staff, and the drop in COVID-19 numbers in California could facilitate the attraction of nurses or visiting doctors.
Starrett responded that the loss of even a few teachers, doctors, nurses or firefighters will have a significant effect on services.
“The loss of a teacher means an entire class of students will be affected,” she said. “Losing an already understaffed hospital nurse, and that means losing hospital bed capacity. Small district firefighters rely on volunteers, and many have resigned or have signaled their intention to resign because of the tenure. “
Charles Boyle, spokesperson for the governor’s office, said in an emailed statement that Brown’s tenure responds to a public health crisis and epidemics are already disrupting the workforce. The vaccine requirements are aimed at ensuring that as many Oregonians as possible are vaccinated, he said.
“If critical first responders are quarantined or hospitalized for COVID-19, who will be left to respond to emergencies in rural communities? Boyle asked.
Brown’s orders covered healthcare workers, school personnel, and state employees, and the Oregon Health Authority interpreted the mandate as probably does not apply city police officers or county sheriff’s deputies. While police officers may have medical training, providing medical care is probably not a fundamental part of their job and, therefore, the warrant does not apply, the agency determined.
State soldiers, however, are state employees and subject to a mandate for vaccination. Nearly three dozen officers are now suing Brown over the vaccine mandate, with court hearings set to begin in early October.
Oregon State Police Captain Stephanie Bigman, a spokesperson for the agency, said the agency would rely on its emergency operations plan to deal with any significant loss of soldiers. She declined to share a copy of that plan without a public record request that would typically take several weeks to process.
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