State Rep. Mark Owens and Sen. Lynn Findley say Gov. Kate Brown’s mandates go too far, forcing teachers, health workers and public employees to choose between what should be a personal medical decision and the jobs that feed their families. Vale Fire Department, Jordan Valley School District and Harney County Health District are among the agencies speaking out against the measures.
VALE – Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate that health care and school workers get vaccinated will trigger a wave of resignations that officials say could shutter ambulance service in the Vale area, close the Jordan Valley school system, and leave the rural hospital in Burns limping along with a small staff.
That was the message delivered to Brown on Wednesday in a letter from state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, pleading with the governor to reverse her order for the vaccinations.
“The impacts these vaccination mandates will have on rural schools, health care providers and hospitals, prisons, public safety and social and public services will be severe,” the rural legislators wrote.
“We strongly request you reverse course and remove the vaccination mandates placed on our health care and education sectors and public and state employees,” they wrote.
Brown’s office said in a statement to the Enterprise Wednesday evening that “elected officials should be calling on their constituents to wear masks and get vaccinated.”
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Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director, said in an email: “The vast majority of Oregonians hospitalized for Covid-19 are unvaccinated. People are dying right now when we have safe, effective, and free vaccines readily available. The governor is responding to a public health crisis.”
Findley and Owens released their letters with a press statement Wednesday evening. Their move came a day after Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe wrote the governor, contesting the “alleged science” related to the pandemic and declaring that her mandates weren’t constitutional.
Meantime, Malheur County has reported an ever-climbing number of people infected with the coronavirus as the delta variant spreads unchecked. As of Wednesday morning, the hospitals in northeast Oregon had a combined total of just two beds available for patients needing intensive medical care.
But Findley and Owens backed up their dire predictions with letters and statements from public officials that were nothing short of stark.
Jess Tolman, chief of Vale Fire and Ambulance, said of the 22 people working in the service, including only three full-time employees, only six have been vaccinated against Covid.
“All other members are willing to walk and resign from their position if the vaccine mandate continues,” Tolman wrote in a letter dated Tuesday to the two legislators.
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“If this mandate continues to be enforced, we will have no choice but to close the department down,” he wrote.
He noted that the ambulance service covers 2,500 square miles of Malheur County.
“The closest additional ambulance service is located 20 miles away and they are dealing with the same issues that we are,” he said. “If our department shuts down, they would be unable to support our call volume.”
The legislators also reported on a statement from Rusty Bengoa, superintendent of the Jordan Valley School District. He said the district employs 25 people – from teachers to office administrators to bus drivers – and that “21 have stated they will not get the Covid-19 vaccine.”
He said the district would have little choice if that happened.
“There is no way that the school district can sustain that loss to personnel,” he said. “The Jordan Valley School District will have no other option but to close if this requirement stands.”
In Burns, the CEO of the Harney County Health District that operates the hospital, described a grim scenario for medical care in the area if vaccination mandates are enforced.
“I implore you to reconsider,” wrote Dan Grigg.
He said that 70 out of 192 employees expressed “high certainty” they would leave their jobs rather than get vaccinated. Another 18 are likely to leave, meaning the hospital district would be left with about half its staff.
“Losing this many employees in these departments would make it nearly impossible to provide a consistently high level of services to our community,” he wrote. “Losing this many EMS staff and nursing staff would completely shut down our ambulance service and hospital inpatient program.”
Grigg recounted how news of an effective vaccine was greeted by the medical community.
“The arrival of vaccines gave us hope that the virus would be eradicated and that we would be able to return to normal,” he said.
He said the community was “well on our way to winning the war againsat Covid-19.”
But vaccinations “plateaued” after about 40% of the Harney County adult population got the vaccine.
“Fear and mistrust began to spared,” he said. “The majority of our community and staff were not comfortable taking the risk of getting the vaccines,” he said.
He said the governor’s decision to impose vaccine mandates will not have the effect of stopping the virus she intended.
“More lives will be lost and we will see even greater pain and suffering,” he said. “That one decision to mandate vaccines has done more to put our rural health system at risk than any other threat that I have faced in my 30 years of working in hospitals.”
The legislators’ letter also noted that the president of the firefighters union in Baker City advised the local city council that up to half the professionals and nine out of 10 volunteers could be lost to the mandate.
While pressing the governor to drop the mandate, Findley and Owens also urged her to provide for “robust medical and religious exemptions” to the mandate.
They returned to their common theme during recent weeks that decisions regarding the pandemic shouldn’t be made for rural communities from Salem.
“As we anticipate the inevitable and unfortunate rise in Covid cases, we must allow local public health authorities and local leaders to make decisions to create the most appropriate plan of action in their communities,” they wrote.
They noted that they have urged their constituents “to aggressively take action to slow the spread, wear mask, social distance, seek out the facts, abide by the laws and obtain official information on the vaccine.”
They said Oregonians “need to do better, but mandated vaccines are not the answer.”
Findley, Owens Call on Governor Brown to Halt, Reverse Mandatory Vaccines,
Provide Robust Religious and Medical Exemptions
Public employees, healthcare providers, educators speak out about significant negative impacts to rural hospitals, schools, and public services
VALE, Ore—Senator Lynn Findley (R-Vale) and Representative Mark Owens (R-Crane) called on Governor Brown today to halt and reverse the recent COVID-19 mandate requiring all health care and education sector workers, as well as some public services and state level employees, to get the COVID-19 vaccine in order to keep their jobs, and to implement robust medical and religious exemptions immediately.
“The newest mandates requiring vaccination for employment go too far—nobody should be forced to make a medical decision under threat of losing one’s job,” said Representative Owens. “Tens of thousands of hard-working Oregonians will be unfairly forced to choose between a medical procedure and the ability to provide for their families.”
“The impacts these vaccination mandates will have on rural schools, health care providers and hospitals, prisons, public safety, and social and public services will be severe,” added Sen. Findley. “These mandates will result in more harm than good and will have an opposite effect than desired.”
During the 2021 general session, Rep. Owens introduced and Sen. Findley co-sponsored HB 3407 to protect Oregonians’ right to privacy and ban vaccine passports to access credit, insurance, education, facilities, medical services, housing or accommodations, travel, entry into this state, employment or purchase goods or services. The bill never left committee or received a hearing.
“The mandate will not result in significantly more vaccinated health care workers, but rather will drive them out of our organizations to other states or out of health care all together. That one decision to mandate vaccines has done more to put our rural health system at risk than any other threat I have faced in my 30 years of working in hospitals,” said Dan Grigg, CEO, Harney County Health District.
“I’ve dedicated over 36 years to being on the frontlines to keep Oregonians healthy because I truly care. To know I’m being forced to quit a career I love or give up my rights to make my own medical decisions is wrong, and it will put our already overwhelmed health care systems further underwater,” said Ramona Tweed, a pharmacy technician from Jefferson County. “It’s a really scary and heartbreaking time for our state.”
Earlier today, Sen. Findley and Rep. Owens sent a letter to Gov. Brown calling for a reversal of the mandate and immediate implementation of robust medical and religious exemptions. In addition, Rep Owens contacted Oregon Legislative Counsel last week with multiple questions on how these exemptions would work if they are in fact implemented.
At time of this release, the questions remain unanswered.
“As emergency status is prolonged and mandates roll out, critically absent is the process for individuals to self-attest for medical and religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine. If this cannot be allowed in Oregon healthcare workers, Eastern Oregon will lose the only longstanding provider for some 2500 Oregon Health Plan dental patients in Harney County,” said Dr. Matthew Bauer of Burns Dental Group. “Due to our unique location, we are also the Dental Home for multiple patients in Harney and Grant Counties and parts of Northern Nevada – that would go away as well. Furthermore, this healthcare entity creates jobs that provide a living wage for 16 families who participate with their dollars in our fragile local economy – with less employees the 43 year-old Burns Dental Group would be kaput.”
Public and union employees have voiced their concerns about the serious impacts on public safety and services.
Casey Johnson, President, IAFF Local 922 Baker City Professional Firefighters, provided testimony to the Baker City Council on August 24 stating that under this mandate, they stand to lose 25% up to 50% of career professionals in the fire service and 90% of their volunteers, including vaccinated firefighters and EMS professionals.
In a letter received from Jess Tolman, Fire and EMS Chief for the Vale Fire and Ambulance, he outlines that 16 out of 22 members of Vale Fire and Ambulance will resign from their jobs if the mandate is enforced, effectively closing their department – an ambulance service responsible for 2,500 square miles with some communities more than two hours apart.
“If this mandate continues to be enforced, we will have no choice but to close the department down. This will greatly impact the community that relies on us to care for time sensitive emergencies. We ask that Governor Brown lift these mandates so we can continue to provide lifesaving care here in Malheur County,” stated Chief Tolman.
Jordan Valley School Superintendent Rusty Bengoa shared, “Out of the 25 total school staff at the Jordan Valley School District, including teachers, para-pros, office personnel, administrators, bus drivers, and coaches, 21 have stated they will not get the Covid-19 vaccine. That is 84% of the staff in Jordan Valley. If this happens there is no way that the school district can sustain that loss to personnel. It is already extremely difficult just to replace one teacher when a position opens. The Jordan Valley School District will have no other option but to close if this requirement stands. That will leave 65 students who live 46 miles from the closest town, which is actually in Idaho, and 70 miles from its closest Oregon neighboring town, with no access to a school.”
“This is not a debate about the reality and dangers of COVID-19 or the Delta variant, or the efficacy of the vaccine,” said Rep Owens. “This is about a gross overreach of authority that is legally, ethically, and morally wrong. The decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal and private conversation and choice between the individual and their healthcare provider.”
Governor Kate Brown
900 Court St. NE, Room 254
Salem, OR 97301
Honorable Governor Brown,
We strongly request you reverse course and remove the vaccination mandates placed on our health care and education sectors, and public and state employees. These mandates were announced without warning and without guidance, causing chaos, confusion and fear among our citizens. In addition, we request you begin an immediate process to allow for medical and religious exemptions to honor the rights and freedoms of Oregonians to make the best medical decisions for themselves and their families. As a staunch advocate for the importance of personal medical choice in so many other healthcare areas, we know you understand and support this same philosophy.
The impacts these vaccination mandates will have on rural schools, health care providers and hospitals, prisons, public safety, social and public services, and other vaccine mandated sectors, will be severe. Thousands of hard-working Oregonians will be unfairly forced to choose between a medical procedure and the ability to provide for their families.
These mandates will result in more harm than good and will have an opposite effect than desired. Rural hospitals have already announced these mandates will result in significant staff loss and will be forced to shut their doors, further burdening an already-overwhelmed health care system. Public safety will be immediately at risk. Our firefighters, police, first responders and EMT sectors are all understaffed as is, and further losses will put our communities in harm’s way.
In times of crisis such as this pandemic, it’s more important than ever that the government and its citizens have a working relationship built on trust, transparency and accountability, and that individual rights and freedoms are honored. As we anticipate the inevitable and unfortunate rise in COVID cases, we must allow local public health authorities and local leaders to make decisions to create the most appropriate plan of action in their communities. We ask that you allow local branches of these sectors the authority to make decisions on how mandates are structured, communicated and if, how, and when they are implemented.
Since day one, we have joined you and our constituents in learning how to navigate this pandemic, shared information, advocated for our constituents to aggressively take action to slow the spread, wear masks, social distance, seek out the facts, abide by the laws, and obtain official information on the vaccine and how to get one if they so choose. We trust Oregonians to make smart decisions for themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their communities. We agree we need to do better, but mandated vaccines are not the answer.
We have included with this letter a series of questions sent to Oregon’s Legislative Counsel regarding medical and religious exemptions and would request a conversation with you as soon as possible. We appreciate your immediate consideration, action, and response to these matters.
Lynn Findley Representative Mark Owens
Senate District 30 House District 60
ONTARIO — As schools get ready to welcome back students for in-person learning, state agencies will be hosting statewide town halls this week, with the first geared toward eastern Oregon.
In response to a letter from state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Harney County, seeking clarification on the mask mandate for Oregon schools, state education and health officials are hosting three virtual town halls this week.
The Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority urge the public to join a Facebook Live town hall event. The page to watch the events is at https://bit.ly/MaskingSchools.
The town halls are all open to the public, but the first has been specifically arranged for eastern Oregonians in Findley’s Senate District 30 and Owen’s House District 60, and is on Monday from 7-8 p.m. local time.
Participants will be invited to share questions during the event and can also submit questions ahead of time by using the following Google Form: https://forms.gle/qVShjXGupwrHnvix9.
Two additional town hall sessions will be held for a statewide audience, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, with the latter of these for the Spanish-speaking community. Both begin at 7 p.m. local time.
“While our request was that these be held in-person, we see this as one small step to opening a much-needed dialogue about these requirements and to hear from Oregonians about the impacts the mandates will have on students, schools and families in preparation for the 2021-2022 school year,” reads an announcement from Findley’s office.
Findley, Owens push back on masks in schools; urge meetings in each county Argus Observer,
ONTARIO — The two state lawmakers whose areas include Malheur County have sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown pushing back on her mandate for masking for students in kindergarten through 12th grade this fall.
Her mandate was issued late last week and directed Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education to create mask policies for the coming school year.
In their opening statement, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Harney, said, “As legislators, we remain consistent in our positions that our local school districts, in conjunction with local public health authorities continue to have the best pulse on their communities and should ultimately be the arbiters of mask policies and mandates.”
The lawmakers requested that Brown make public the specific data she used to mandate a state-wide, schools-wide policy, in light of the fact that Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist had said that there is not enough evidence that schools or students are responsible for community spread.
They also requested that officials in the governor’s office and ODE hold in-person town halls and listening sessions in every county to explain the new rules.
“These actions need to be made public and official, and these statewide entities have the responsibility to make these decisions known to our school districts,” the letter states, adding working virtually behind closed doors will not cut it.
Also, Findley and Owens said there need to be clear and precise metrics for when the school mask policy will be lifted.