ONTARIO — More and more people are stepping up and voicing their opinion over people having a choice versus being mandated to get vaccinated for COVID-19 or lose their respective job. This comes on the heels of mandates for worker classes, including those who work for the state, in health care or in K-12 schools.
A protest was staged on Wednesday afternoon in front of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-in Ontario and the same group, Stand for Kids-Malheur, is planning to be back there Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. The group stated that their protests are not about being against vaccines, but about the freedom of an individual to choose whether they want that medical procedure.
About 100 people showed up at the beginning of the protest on Wednesday, with more showing up during the two-hour stretch. There were also at least two people circulating petitions on behalf of Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, who is aiming to gather as many signatures as possible through Sept. 7 to be sent with a letter to Gov. Kate Brown stating that she and other leaders are using the pandemic to enforce unconstitutional mandates, emphasizing that people should have the freedom to choose whether to get a vaccine or wear a mask, adding that individuals will have to deal with their own consequences of doing that.
While many citizens have voiced similar opinions, the Malheur County Health Department on Wednesday released a letter to news agencies which included signatures of more than 40 local health-care providers, urging people to have open and honest discussions about the risks and benefits of being vaccinated versus getting or spreading COVID. Additionally, the department is bringing back free testing and vaccination events, starting next Tuesday, and running every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Malheur County fairgrounds.
On Thursday, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, in a news release stated they had reached out to Brown on Wednesday urging her to “halt and reverse” her recent vaccine requirements for specific worker classes, as well as add “robust medical and religions exemptions immediately.”
Those mandates could cripple the rural area, according to their release, which states that due to those mandates, a local school district may have to close, a local fire and ambulance service may lose the majority of its members, as most of the firefighters are cross-trained as emergency medical technicians.
The lawmakers said they received a letter from Jess Tolman, Fire and EMS Chief for the Vale Fire and Ambulance, who stated that 16 out of 22 members of that agency will resign from their jobs if the mandate is enforced, effectively closing their department. The agency is 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,” Tolman was quoted in the news release.
Additionally, Jordan Valley School Superintendent Rusty Bengoa, in the lawmakers’ release, outlined how it may displace all of the students in that school district due to forecasted staff shortages.
“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,” Bengoa said. “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.”
Owens said the debate is not about the reality or dangers of COVID or the Delta variant or the efficacy of the vaccine.
“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 health-care provider,” he said.
Owens contacted Oregon Legislative Counsel last week with multiple questions on how these exemptions would work if they are in fact implemented. At this time, those questions remain unanswered.
Findley, in a phone interview this morning, says they have not heard back from Brown, either.
When asked how long people might stay in their respective positions before leaving, he said he wasn’t certain.
“Nobody wants to leave,” he said.
Findley’s hope for robust exemption, he said would be that those would “accommodate the desires and beliefs and thoughts of the citizens without having to prove anything.”
In the news release, Findley said the impact to the rural area will be severe for schools, health-care providers, hospitals, prisons, public safety and social and public services.
“These mandates will result in more harm than good and will have an opposite effect than desired,” Findley said.
Outside of Malheur County, the lawmakers say that forced vaccinations will also harm health systems in Harney, Jefferson and Baker county, too. This includes the Harney County Health District, whose CEO states that the mandates will drive the workers to other organizations, 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 in the lawmakers’ news release.
A pharmacy technician from Jefferson County said after 36 years of working in a frontline positions, she will be forced to quite her career she loves or give up her rights.
“It’s a really scary and heartbreaking time for our state,” she said.
In Harney County, the Burns Dental Group serves about 2,500 patients on the Oregon Health Plan, and it is believed it would also close.
Starting Friday, Malheur County will join 18 other counties in a backslide of risk levels associated with the spread of COVID-19, according to an announcement from Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday afternoon. Of those counties, 15 are moving from “high risk” into “extreme risk.” The change is due to data from April 18-24, and will be effective through May 6.
Malheur County was moved to the lowest of the four risk levels on April 9. Prior to that, it had been in the “moderate risk” level since Feb. 26; and before that it had been in “extreme risk” restrictions since Nov. 18, 2020.
‘Enough is enough’
Dissatisfied with the announcement, local lawmakers penned a letter immediately to Brown and Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen.
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, who represents Senate District 30, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, who represents House District 60 began their letter to Brown and Allen saying, “Respectfully, enough is enough.”
The lawmakers say that the science and data do not support the decision and that “our businesses are being unfairly and unreasonably targeted.” Furthermore, they say $20 million of support for counties will not “adequately address the needs nor does it get to solving the roots of this problem. “
The letter paints a brief picture of business and community hardships — including permanent business closures, tens of thousands of unemployed Oregonians, lost revenues and bankruptcies — that have resulted from the shutdowns.
“We have followed the stringent protocols … There is no data showing small businesses, restaurants and bars, gyms and fitness facilities are responsible for high transmission rates — in fact, it is just the opposite.
The lawmakers say the inconsistency in measuring metrics is “alarming and certainly prevents the ability to fully understand the circumstances by which decisions are being made.” Additionally, they say the rollout of vaccines has been “disorganized, disorderly and delayed.
“Frankly, our small businesses are not the problem. They should not be penalized again or further; it is not their responsibility to shoulder the burden of COVID-19,” the letter reads, and concludes by asking Brown and Allen to reconsider the change.
Comments from the Malheur County Health Department were unavailable by press time.
Restrictions ramp back up
Many of the restrictions that were relaxed in the lowest risk category will now be strengthened again, per guidance from the Oregon Health Authority and Brown.
Examples of the changes that begin on Friday include a decrease in at-home gathering sizes, from 10 people down to eight indoors, and from 12 people down to 10 outdoors. The maximum number of households at those gatherings also decreases from four to three.
Other changes are related to indoor and outdoor capacity, include those for eating and drinking establishments (including having to close at 11 p.m., an hour earlier), recreational and fitness, outdoor entertainment, state institutions, and facilities such as funeral homes, mortuaries and cemeteries, with the latter four having to reduce from 75% to 50% capacity or 150 people, whichever is smaller; and for outdoor events will now be down from 350 to 250 people and the capacity limits for faith-based institutions remains a suggestion only.
It also reestablishes the cap on numbers which was gone in the “lower risk” category. For restaurants and bars, the capacity is not to exceed 50% or 100 people, whichever is smaller, with a limit of six people per table; the outdoor capacity remains at eight people per table.
Full contact sports are still allowed, however, for outdoor entertainment, the occupancy is reduced from 50% to 25%.
Visitation will still be allowed inside and outside longterm care facilities.
In an effort to speed up the return to normal business operations, county COVID-19 data will be evaluated weekly for at least the next three weeks, according to Brown. Any updates to county risk levels next week will be announced on May 4 and take effect on May 7.
The Oregon Department of Education has announced new health metrics that make it easier for rural schools to reopen. But districts are still trying to figure out what these benchmarks mean.
How and when Oregon kids will go back to classrooms is still an open question, with the opening of school fast approaching. This week, the state’s Department of Education bowed to pressure from rural community leaders and released new standards for in-person instruction in the state’s most sparsely-populated areas.
ODE Director Colt Gill said that the goal of these updated protocols is to allow rural schools the flexibility to reopen their doors while ensuring that any school-related outbreaks remain small.
“We want to make sure no local health authority would be overwhelmed by contact tracing. We want to reduce the number of students and staff interacting,” said Gill.
Counties with populations of less than 30,000 will be able to open, even if they don’t meet the statewide standard of fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 residents. Those counties can open schools that serve fewer than 250 students if certain criteria are met. Conditions include limiting the total number of cases in a county over the previous three weeks to no more than 30. If more than half of those cases occurred in the final week of that three-week period schools would have to remain closed, because it could indicate increasing community transmission.
There can’t be any transmission happening in the school community and only schools where less than 10% of students travel from another area will qualify.
In counties with a population of fewer than six people per square mile, schools can reopen regardless of size if there have been fewer than 30 cases total in the last three weeks. The schools can’t serve a “significant number” of students commuting from other districts, and there can’t be active outbreaks in commuters’ hometowns.
“We’ll take what we can get given the circumstances, and we’re thankful the state was willing to hear the feedback of our rural communities and find a common-sense solution,” said Crook County Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson in a Tuesday press release.
ODE’s revisions mean that in her district, two of Central Oregon’s smallest schools — Paulina and Brothers — will open their doors next month. Crook County officials are among school administrators across the state scrambling to decipher the guidelines and decide which facilities can have kids attend classes in-person.
Adding to the uncertainty, ODE officials have said they expect to update the guidance a few more times before school starts.
“I think it’s a great first step,” said Rep. Mark Owens of the revised guidance for small population counties. The Republican from Crane represents Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur and part of Lake counties — a vast swath of Oregon with a small fraction of the state population, where statewide rulemaking has long been a political target.
ODE said that rural health departments face unique challenges tracking and containing COVID-19. “For those very low population, but very large geographic counties, that does become a challenge,” said Gill, adding that health departments were consulted when making guidelines and that larger counties do have bigger health departments.
Owens also acknowledged that after years of budget cuts, and in some cases total defunding, many of the rural health departments these school plans now depend on “are not set up to deal with a global pandemic, or be successful without help.”
“The state is going to have to step up with some CARES Act funding in order to make sure that we can give them extra personnel,” Owens added.
Owens is married to a teacher, with a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.
“I honestly feel that my family will be safer with the practices in place in school than they are when traveling to Home Depot, or traveling to some of the other things that are allowed currently,” he said.
If residents of one town frequently travel to another for work or to shop, outbreaks in those communities would also cause schools to close.
“We wanted provisions to address rural towns that are more of a bedroom community to a city that might be impacted by COVID-19,” Gill said, “[Local public health authorities] do need to understand if the majority of that community works in or shops in another community that is impacted, they’re not isolated.”
Because some rural towns are far apart or aren’t connected by major roads, some schools can stay open even if there is active community transmission in the county.
“The idea behind this guidance is that some of our very large geographic counties, where towns are spread out, could have an outbreak in one community, and then for thousands of square miles, no outbreaks,” Gill said.
That doesn’t just apply to in-state communities. Officials will also need to take into account outbreaks in nearby communities across state lines.
On the state’s eastern border with Idaho, Malheur County has become a hotspot for the virus in some areas, while other communities remain untouched. At over 10,000-square-miles, it’s the second-largest county in the state and a case study in the complexity of regulating Oregon’s diverse geography.
Zach Olson’s two kids were attending school in Nyssa, where the infection rate is nearly five times the state average, as of last week’s OHA report. It takes over an hour to drive from there, to the school in Jordan Valley, both within Malheur County.
Olson said he’s fortunate to be able to afford a nanny while his family juggles child care, and resentful that other kinds of business reopened before schools.
“Every day I walk by a closed elementary school and then numerous open bars, restaurants, and pot shops. The governor created that situation and it can not stand,” Olson said in an email.
The dad of two boys was critical of how often the guidelines have changed leading up to the start of the fall semester.
“It is great that the governor keeps taking steps towards prioritizing elementary and rural schools, but she is giving us whiplash,” he said.
The updated metrics also include exemptions for rural school districts in more populated counties. For urban schools to reopen, there needs to be less than 10 cases per 100,000 for three consecutive weeks. But rural schools can reopen if the school serves fewer than 250 people if there is no transmission in the community, and if they meet the same case metrics for counties with smaller populations
Many people in Oregon have reported delayed test results in the last month, sometimes waiting for as long as three weeks to find out if they have COVID-19. To make sure counties can identify outbreaks in time to close schools, presumptive cases do not need to be confirmed with a laboratory test to count.
As director of the Oregon Department of Education, Gill has the authority to close a school facility and address any complaints raised about flouting its guidance.
SALEM—As Legislators meet this week in Salem for a special session, Senator Lynn Findley (R-Vale) and Representative Mark Owens (R-Crane) are urging Oregon’s legislative leadership to protect Oregon schools, public entities, medical professionals, and private businesses from COVID-related lawsuits.
Perhaps the biggest glaring issue Oregon faces as the fallout of the Coronavirus epidemic continues came with an announcement from PACE insurance, which covers a majority of school districts in the state, that they will no longer provide liability insurance for Oregon schools against lawsuits related to COVID as of June 30th.
This means any student, staff member, parent, or private citizen who contracts COVID on school property or at a school event would be able to sue the school district. Without liability insurance to cover schools, many have said they will not be able to reopen because it would leave them exposed to frivolous and opportunistic lawsuits which could bankrupt or financially cripple our schools for years to come.
“We still have the opportunity to address the liability for schools. This needs to happen. It is not too late,” said Rep. Owens, who also is School Board Chair of Crane School District. “We are already in Salem for the special session, which was designed to fix urgent problems of this nature.”
Sen. Findley added, “This should be the top priority during this special session. Now is the time. Schools, students, and staff need the reassurance that they are covered from liability in order to reopen.”
Several groups have suggested that Oregon institute a “Good Neighbor Policy” for public and private entities, meaning if the rules and regulations set forth by the state are being followed by the entity and people get sick, those individuals cannot sue the school/business. Eight states have passed similar legislation.
Senator Findley and Rep. Owens encourage everyone concerned with the liability insurance issue to contact the legislative leadership team to voice your concerns and ask them to include a “Good Neighbor Policy” in the legislation being considered during this special session.
By Senator Lynn Findley, Representative Mark Owens and Representative Daniel Bonham
Oregonians are experiencing unprecedented times and unforeseen challenges. The global pandemic is affecting each of us in different ways, but it is an equally confusing, scary, frustrating, and emotional time.
Even just a few weeks in, though, there is good news—Oregonians are staying home and staying healthy. The most recent modeling numbers from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) indicate that our combined efforts to abide by social distancing guidelines locally and across the state are working. It was reported on April 2 that the positive case numbers are down 50% to 70% from the earlier predictions.
One of our objectives, and the reason for such stringent measures, has been to “flatten the curve” and the Oregon Health Authority stated they will be able to tell us by the week of April 13 when we will reach this objective. This will be a key moment in our state. The restrictions are working, but the economic price we’re paying is becoming staggering. With each day that passes during this time, our local, regional and state economies are losing exponentially. Before we get to April 13 (or any other date certain), we must also understand what will be needed to get Oregonians back to work and doors open for business which will re-start our economy.
Despite much-needed and appreciated revenue and relief packages from our federal and state partners, no amount of stimulus can replace what Oregon’s economy can produce from inside the lines. The GDP of Oregon in 2018 was 213 billion. The Federal Stimulus package, or CARES Act, for Oregon appears to be 1.63 billion which means the federal funding is only three-days-worth of what Oregon’s economy can churn when it’s firing on all cylinders. Don’t get us wrong: this funding is absolutely necessary and will support us as an immediate and temporary means, but it will not and cannot solve the impacts felt by these drastic short-term measures, regardless of how necessary and helpful they have been.
We must get our economy working again by getting Oregonians working again, and this must happen as soon as possible. In order to do this safely, but quickly, there are a few things that must take place:
1. We need wide-scale testing so all Oregonians can be tested and once tested negative, start a system for allowing them to return to the workforce.
2. Ensure there is enough PPE in the state for our health care workers and first responders, particularly in eastern and rural Oregon.
3. A plan to protect our vulnerable populations as we re-enter the workforce and become a functional society again.
We can and must start addressing these issues immediately in parallel with following the measures to flatten the curve, prevent the spread of the virus and save lives. State leadership, of which we are a part of, needs to start this conversation today and open the table to regional leaders and other economic experts so we can find a way to invest money and resources to make these things happen.
Much like the Governor’s swift and necessary actions to stop the spread and flatten the curve in anticipation of the unknown, we need to take swift and necessary actions to prepare for what we do know. The longer Oregon’s economy has to keep it doors shut, the longer the recovery will take and the sharper the economic recovery curve will become.
Millions of Oregonians are relying on us to make sure they can recapture their livelihoods, protect their families and pay their bills. Oregon can’t wait any longer to start addressing these issues and getting back to work, while we all continue working together to flatten the curve and save lives.