Facing a sharp surge in COVID-19 infections that threatens to swamp Oregon hospitals, Gov. Kate Brown ordered a double dose Thursday of mandatory vaccination mandates.
All K-12 educators, school staff and volunteers must be vaccinated no later than Oct. 18.
“COVID-19 poses a threat to our kids, and our kids need to be protected and they need to be in school,” Brown said.
A second mandate with the same deadline would apply to doctors, nurses, emergency medical teams and other health care workers.
The mandates have a deadline far beyond the projected Sept. 3 peak of the current spike in cases.
Brown said there were no current plans for earlier actions, such as restoring pandemic restrictions on businesses and gatherings, or curbing upcoming events such as the Oregon State Fair, the Pendleton Round-Up or college football games.
”Everything is on the table,” Brown said, using a frequently invoked phrase to leave open options if the pandemic trends shift again.
State health officials know that they have an explosion of COVID-19 cases with a likelihood that the problem will only grow over the next two weeks.
Daily infections have exploded in the past six weeks, going from under 150 in early July to a record 2,971 cases reported on Thursday. The state is now averaging 2,025 cases per day.
The Oregon Health Authority has reported that hospitals are nearly full, with with 93% of staffed adult hospital beds in Oregon occupied and 94% of staffed adult ICU beds across the state full.
The Oregon Health & Science University COVID-19 forecast for Aug. 18 said the pace of increases will continue until Labor Day weekend and is likely to leave the state 500 hospital beds short of demand.
“The fifth wave of the pandemic in Oregon remains much more severe than previous surges,” said Peter Graven, a top OHSU data scientist.
On Wednesday, the percentage of COVID-19 tests that were positive was 13.8%, a rate that indicates exponential growth of infections. A rate of 5% is considered the top end to manage impacts on public health. The original version of COVID-19 reached a maximum rate last year of one person infecting three others. The delta variant is spreading at a rate of one person infecting eight others.
The OHSU forecast, which is updated about once a week, now projects COVID-19 hospitalizations to rise from the current 838 patients to about 1,075 by Sept. 3.
The spike won’t completely recede to levels seen at the beginning of August until late October at the earliest, according to the OHSU forecast.
OHA Director Pat Allen painted a dire picture of the hospital system straining under the flood of unvaccinated people who have become infected with the delta variant.
“Our health care system is on the verge of collapse in parts of the state,” Allen said.
The quarter of the state’s population who remain unvaccinated offer themselves “as a target to a virus that has killed 600,000 Americans,” Allen said.
Brown said she knew the vaccination requirements would generate blowback from workers who didn’t want to be vaccinated, just as her earlier switch from voluntary to mandated mask wearing by school children had generated a wave of opposition.
But many of those decisions were made in July, when COVID-19 cases were about 12 times lower than today.
Without the mask and vaccination mandates, Brown said it would be difficult in particular to keep students in the classroom.
“That’s why I’m willing to take the heat for this decision,” Brown said.
The deadline for both the health and education groups to be vaccinated is Oct. 18, or six weeks after full approval of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Brown is also requiring all employees of the state’s executive branch under her control to be vaccinated.
There are health and religious exemptions the state workers can apply for, but the third option, Brown said, “is termination.”
The mandates come as voluntary vaccination in Oregon is “flat” according to OHSU and rising slightly according to OHA. That mirrors a national trend of slowing inoculation, with the CDC reporting about 771,000 doses per day are being used today, a more than 75% drop from the 3.38 million on April 13.
OHA also reported:
• 12,741 new daily cases of COVID-19 during the week of Monday, Aug. 9, through Sunday, Aug. 15. That’s up 53% over the previous week.
• 546 new COVID-19 hospitalizations, up from 224 the previous week. It marked the fifth consecutive week of increases.
• 46 reported COVID-19 related deaths, up from 40 reported the previous week. Though widespread vaccination of older residents and others most susceptible to severe illness has curbed the percentage of those killed by the virus, the current spike is spreading so rapidly that all indicators, including deaths, are on the rise.
Brown’s orders brings Oregon in line with California and Washington policies. The Portland Public Schools had earlier mandated vaccinations for teachers and staff.
Brown said the state is taking several steps to shore up the response to the medical crisis. Actions include sending National Guard troops to 20 hospitals in the state to support staff experiencing an torrent of new cases.
Requests for help from other states and federal agencies have been made, including asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a fully staffed field hospital.
The state is also hiring nursing teams and private emergency medical technicians to supplement the exhausted personnel in the state.
The National Guard units will include nurses, staff for temporary decompression units to free up bed space and speeding the discharge of patients who no longer require hospital-level care so that new patients can be assigned to open beds.