Malheur County leaders say vaccine mandate could cripple or close schools, ambulance service
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.”
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.
“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.”