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Pacific NW governors hold fast on vax deadline as more local officials warn of worker exodus

caption: People opposed to vax mandates protested at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia on multiple weekends during September.
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People opposed to vax mandates protested at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia on multiple weekends during September.
Austin Jenkins / NW News Network

The days are quickly ticking down to next Monday's deadline when most Oregon and Washington teachers, health care workers and public employees need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Especially in more conservative swaths of the Pacific Northwest, elected officials remain fearful of a "mass exodus" of firefighters and health care professionals. They are trying different avenues to get governors Brown and Inslee to back off the vaccination deadline. But there are no signs the governors are open to delays.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich took to the department's YouTube channel the other day to deliver a 13-minute monologue directed at Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

"At the height of the pandemic, does it really make sense to terminate our health care workers, our firefighters, our EMS personnel?" Knezovich said.

Knezovich said he is vaccinated against COVID-19 and encourages others to get the shot. But the sheriff said he can't stomach dismissals of hard-to-replace emergency responders who refuse the vaccine.

"If you know what the potential outcome is, do we really play this game of chicken?" Knezovich continued. "I don't think so. So, once again I'm asking Gov. Inslee to please back away from these mandates."

County commissions in a bunch of mostly rural counties across Oregon have the same burr in their saddles, but are taking a slightly different approach to get the attention of their governor. At least eight counties have preemptively declared a local "state of emergency."

Southeastern Oregon's Harney County is the latest. As elsewhere, the county commission said it anticipates the COVID vaccination requirement will cause a staff exodus at the county's only hospital, at schools and emergency services. A resolution approved last Wednesday said that prospect creates a "foreseeable lack of adequate resources to respond to basic needs."

"We are going on record with the state as saying we and a lot of other counties as well, ‘We need help. And you know it. You officially know it,’" said Commissioner Patty Dorroh.

Harney County joins Jackson, Jefferson, Crook, Union, Baker, Malheur and Yamhill counties in preemptively declaring local states of emergency.

Most county commission votes on the similarly-worded resolutions were unanimous, but there were dissenting comments in a few instances.

“It’s going to accomplish nothing, so I don’t see a reason to do it,” Jackson County Commissioner Dave Dotterrer said during a work session on September 28.

Neither Oregon's nor Washington's governor appears swayed to back down on the vaccine requirement or to delay it. Democratic Gov. Inslee said he disagrees with public workers who argue the COVID vaccine should be a matter of personal choice.

"When people smoke, I shouldn't have to breathe your smoke and I shouldn't have to breathe your virus either," Inslee said during an interview on the cable channel TVW. "We need the public to recognize that the failure to get a vaccine exposes everyone that you come in contact with to this disease. That's not acceptable."

Inslee said the combination of "sky-high" vaccination rates among state employees and contingency plans prepared by state agencies gave him confidence the government will be able to maintain important services.

"There will not be massive disruptions in state services," Inslee asserted in a statement on Monday.

Several larger states and an assortment of companies imposed COVID-19 vaccination requirements with deadlines that have already come and gone.

Taya Briley, executive vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association, said those examples indicate vaccine mandates work.

"The experience of New York and California suggest that as we get closer to the implementation date, the vaccination rates for hospital staff do go up and we are seeing some similar trends here in Washington," Briley said during a media briefing. "However, we are concerned about potential impacts on services related to staff shortages."

Dr. Michael Myint of Tacoma-based MultiCare Health System added that even a small number of staff resignations or dismissals can hurt, depending where they are.

"If they're in the post-acute care space or if they are in intensive care or other units where we've had a lot of demand, those would have obviously a disproportionate effect on our ability to continue to care for patients," Myint said.

On Monday, the Washington State Hospital Association estimated between two to five percent of hospital workers statewide will be placed on leave next week because they refused the shot. The association said that will likely result in some services being curtailed. This has already happened in some Oregon and Washington hospital systems that were early adopters of vaccine mandates. For example, earlier this month Portland-based Legacy Health consolidated some lab services and temporarily closed four urgent care centers.

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