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‘Why the hell did we do that?’: How unique Oregon law prevents COVID-19 vaccine


In Oregon and across the country, a growing segment of health care workers are calling for mandatory vaccinations for their colleagues to ensure COVID-19 doesn’t spread among staff members or patients.

Last Tuesday, multiple major health organizations declared health care workers should have to get COVID-19 shots. Last Wednesday, Oregon’s lobbying arm for hospitals said employers had to be able to make such mandates.

But, in Oregon, a 32-year-old law stands in the way.

Oregon appears to be the only state in the country that explicitly prohibits health care organizations from mandating vaccinations for workers.

Employers for nearly every other profession in Oregon can require vaccines among staff. In some states, health care staff are among the few groups specifically targeted for mandatory vaccinations.

Oregon’s outlier status is puzzling, even to the people responsible for creating it.

“Now, why the hell did we do that?” said former Sen. Wayne Fawbush, D-Hood River, one of the sponsors of the 1989 legislation that is now preventing health care workers from being mandated to get shots.

Had he understood all the implications of the law, Fawbush said, he probably would not have supported it. In today’s world, the law likely endangers health care workers who encounter COVID-19 patients, he said.

“The context has changed dramatically,” Fawbush said.

Health care workers can't be told they have to be vaccinated

Margie Willis, 68, takes immune-suppressant medications to protect her transplanted liver. Those medications make the COVID-19 vaccine potentially ineffective for her, and she is concerned she could get infected from someone who hasn’t been vaccinated. Willis is perplexed that an Oregon law bars employers from mandating that health care workers get vaccinated.

COVID-19 vaccinations have been available for health care workers for seven full months, yet uptake among some remains remarkably low. And Oregon legislators, who just finished a five-month lawmaking session, did nothing to address the vaccination carve out, which also applies to firefighters, law enforcement and corrections officers.

Dorit Reiss, a law professor and vaccine expert at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco, has reviewed laws and executive orders relating to COVID-19 vaccine mandates in all 50 states, and found that only in Oregon are health care workers protected from losing their jobs if they refuse to get vaccinated.

“If there’s one place where you would allow vaccine mandates, it’s for health care workers,” Reiss said. “Oregon has it kind of the other way around from what you would expect.”

The exemption was tucked into a 1989 bill focused predominantly on ensuring health care workers were informed if they were exposed to patients with infectious diseases, a particularly important issue at the time because of the HIV epidemic.

But records of the committee hearings make no mention of the vaccine exemption that’s become such a hot topic 32 years later. An earlier version of the bill limited the exemption to emergency responders, legislative records show.

The law prohibits employers from making vaccinations mandatory, saying licensed health care workers and health care facility employees “shall not be required as a condition of work to be immunized” unless other state or federal laws or regulations require a vaccine.

While vaccinations across the entire population will be key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic and reducing associated health risks, immunizing staff in hospitals and other health care settings is particularly important, experts said.

Health care workers who refuse to get vaccinated and later become infected and sick could leave hospitals understaffed, experts said. Or they could become infected and unknowingly spread the virus to coworkers, people…



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