Governor Kate Brown on Tuesday unfurled two sweeping new measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic in Oregon, as hospital officials paint an increasingly dire picture of a state hospital system sagging under the latest surge of severe Covid-19 infections.
Hundreds of thousands of state government employees will be required to show proof of vaccination as early as mid-October, Brown announced, and new statewide indoor mask restrictions are coming down the pike.
The requirement extends to almost all state workers, except those working for the Legislature and the state court system. It does not apply to workers in city and county governments and special districts.
Affected employees will be required to show proof of vaccination on or before Oct. 18, or six weeks after a Covid-19 vaccine receives full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whichever is later.
Individuals unable to be vaccinated due to disability or sincerely held religious belief may be able to qualify for an exception, as required by state and federal law. State government employees, however, will not have the option of weekly testing that is being offered to Oregon’s health care workers who decline the jab.
Brown said she consulted with statewide elected officials, the Oregon State Treasury, the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office, the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries and the Oregon Department of Justice to craft the new mandate.
“Vaccines are safe and effective, and they are the surest way to prevent Oregonians from ending up in intensive care units,” said Brown. “I am taking action to help ensure State of Oregon workplaces are safe for employees and customers alike, and I am strongly encouraging all public and private employers to follow suit by requiring vaccination for their employees. The only way we can stop the spread of Covid-19 for good is through vaccination.”
Brown said she will share details of the new indoor mask requirements at a press conference scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday. The engagement will be held via Zoom and livestreamed on YouTube.
It was barely a month ago that Brown lifted the statewide mask mandate and other business restrictions, vowing that they would never return. She said her rapid 180 has been driven by the rise of the highly contagious delta variant, which data suggests is less likely to seriously sicken vaccinated people — but can be spread by anyone.
“The latest science is clear: Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can spread the delta variant,” Brown said. “Masks are a simple and effective way to make sure you are not unknowingly infecting your friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues.”
In a press release, Brown acknowledged the weariness Oregonians are feeling toward health and safety measures after seeming to have turned the corner on the pandemic just a few weeks ago.
“This new mask requirement will not last forever, but it is a measure that can save lives right now,” Brown promised. “It will help to protect all of us, including people who are immunocompromised, and our children under 12 who are not yet eligible to get vaccinated. Masks are a simple and effective tool that will keep our schools, businesses, and communities open.”
The sweeping measures followed new projections from the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Health & Science University that suggested Covid-19 hospitalizations are on track to far exceed the state’s health system capacity within the next month.
According to modeling from OHSU, without these additional mitigation measures, Oregon could be as many as 500 beds short of what will be needed to treat patients hospitalized for any reason by September.
“Cases are rapidly rising and the current forecast predicts that Oregon will have more than 1,000 hospitalized Covid-19 patients by Labor Day,” OHSU officials said in a statement. “This is the worst-case scenario that Oregonians worked so hard to avoid in March 2020.”
Oregon’s situation is compounded by the fact that the state has the fewest number of available hospital beds per capita than anywhere else in the country. Oregon hospitals are also grappling with severe staff burnout and workforce shortages.
Brown said the spike consists “overwhelmingly of unvaccinated individuals and is “quickly exceeding the darkest days of our winter surge.”
“When our hospitals are full, there will be no room for additional patients needing care — whether for Covid-19, a heart attack or stroke, a car collision, or a variety of other emergency situations,” the governor said. “If our hospitals run out of staffed beds, all Oregonians will be at risk.”
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