About 90% of the St. Charles Health System workforce is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or received the first of two shots in an effort to meet the governor’s mandate that all health care workers be vaccinated or be placed on leave.
The figure is an improvement since July, when the hospital system reported that 75.9% of its workforce had been vaccinated.
St. Charles, with its 4,600 employees, is not the only medical facility that falls under the governor’s mandate. There are 2,887 registered nurses and 135 licensed practical nurses living in Deschutes County, said Barbara Holtry, communications manager for the Oregon State Nursing Board.
An employee can be fired under the governor’s mandate issued in August, but that is up to the employer, according to Oregon Health Authority vaccine rules. Health care workers can seek an exemption for religious or health reasons. Health care workers are required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, or six weeks after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the drug, whichever is later.
After Oct. 18, no health care provider or staff can work, learn, study, observe or volunteer without being fully vaccinated, according to the health authority vaccine rules. Nor can a medical facility hire anyone without proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
In Deschutes County, the vaccination rate as of Monday was about 74.4% for people 18 and older, an increase of 0.4% from the prior week, according to state data. The statewide rate of vaccination among those 18 and older on Monday was 75.4%, according to the health authority website.
St. Charles Health System said the impact of the vaccination mandate is still unknown because it was still reviewing the exemptions, said Lisa Goodman, hospital system spokeswoman, in an email. Goodman did not provide a breakdown of the exemptions for medical or religious reasons pending review.
Hospital workers who refused to get vaccinated or seek an exemption are considered to have voluntarily resigned and employment will be terminated after their last scheduled shift Oct. 18, Goodman said.
Religious exemptions must be corroborated by a document that states the individual has a “sincerely held religious belief” and a statement describing the way the vaccination requirement conflicts with that belief, practice or observance. A medical exemption must be corroborated by a signed document from a medical provider certifying the individual has a physical or mental impairment that limits the person’s ability to receive a vaccine.
By way of comparison, Oregon Health & Science University has 21,001 employees and students fully vaccinated and 253 are partially vaccinated, said Franny White, OHSU spokeswoman, in an email. As of September, OHSU has issued 48 medical and 465 religious requests for exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccination.
“Hospitals throughout Oregon continue to manage high volumes of patients who require care for COVID-19 and other conditions,” White said. “To help maintain access to acute and emergency services, many hospitals statewide — including OHSU — have taken necessary steps such as reducing inpatient surgical cases to increase hospital capacity.”
The Oregon Nurses Association, which represents 15,000 nurses and technicians statewide, including those at St. Charles, predicts the governor’s mandate will strain health care systems even further.
Since August, St. Charles’s four hospitals have augmented staffing with members of the Oregon National Guard. More than 100 guard members work in support roles at St. Charles, a role they will continue to play through Nov. 14. Also assigned to St. Charles are 125 state-allocated traveling nurses assigned through Oct. 24, Goodman said in an email.
“The national guard and the state-contracted travelers have been a tremendous resource for the health system,” Goodman said. “Unfortunately we continue to struggle to fill open positions. We currently have 800 openings.”
On Tuesday, the hospital system said it would require that all visitors to any of its hospitals or clinics show proof of being fully vaccinated as of Oct. 18. A person is considered fully vaccinated after two weeks from the date of the second dose of a two-dose series like Pfizer or Moderna or a single-dose vaccine such as Johnson & Johnson.
However, unvaccinated visitors will be allowed, according to the hospital, under “extraordinary” circumstances. Those would include, visiting a patient at the end of life, a parent of a pediatric patient, a support person, or emergency response worker who may need to enter while on duty.
COVID-19 positive patients are not permitted visitors, a policy that will continue regardless of the visitor’s vaccination status, the hospital said in a prepared statement.