Governor won’t relent on vaccine mandate, saying Covid deaths ‘unacceptable and preventable’

Gov. Kate Brown pushed back hard Thursday on public officials urging her to drop her vaccination mandates, saying “I am focused on solving a public health crisis, not a political problem.”

The governor said she wouldn’t retract her mandate that health care workers, school employees and state workers get vaccinated.

“We don’t have a lot of options,” she said in interview with the Malheur Enterprise. “We’re in the midst of a public health crisis.”

 She said she has seen no plan from any rural county to contain the rapidly-spreading Delta variant despite insistence from rural legislators, county commissioners and other local officials that pandemic decisions should be left to local communities.

Brown also said she intended to address sheriffs from rural counties who in recent days have been insisting on local control – and declaring they won’t enforce state-ordered mask mandates.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said in a statement Wednesday he won’t enforce a mask mandate he considered “reckless.”

“I am tired of Governor Brown’s style of leadership that ignores the abilities of our local leadership,” he said. 

The governor said her administration never asked the sheriffs to police the mandate. Her frustration with their public attacks was evident as she discussed the issue.

“I’m going to ask them to tour an ICU with me, filled with Covid patients,” Brown said.

Brown granted the interview after two eastern Oregon legislators, state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, pressed her in a letter on Wednesday to drop the mandate. They presented statements from local officials describing how they expect to lose employees and volunteers who don’t want to get vaccinated. In Vale, the local ambulance service said as a result, it could close. In Jordan Valley, the local school district said it would have to shut down.

The governor said she was aware of such concerns.

“There’s no question that there will be some people leaving,” she said.

But the governor noted that employees already are quitting because of the pressures of the pandemic. She said she sees exhausted health care workers and long-term care providers leaving their Gov. Kate Brown in her Portland office (FILE/Salem Reporter)

“They are burning out even though they’ve been vaccinated. It’s extremely frustrating for them,” she said.

She said Washington and California have similar vaccination requirements.

“The challenge we have is the pandemic will not end unless a substantially higher percentage of the population gets vaccinated,” she said.

In 10 counties, all rural, only up to half the eligible population has been vaccinated. Malheur County has the second-worst rate at 40%. Health officials are aiming for 80% statewide.

The governor said the evidence of the toll of the pandemic is clear around the state.

She talked about the recent Covid-related death 49-year-old “extremely healthy” man with four children.

“That is unacceptable and that is preventable,” Brown said.

The Oregon Health Authority Thursday reported a total of 265,210 cases of Covid and 3,095 deaths in the state since the pandemic started in 2020. The report showed 1,085 people hospitalized.

“Are folks not seeing what’s happening” in hospitals in Bend, Roseburg and Medford, the governor asked. “We are overwhelmed. We have no additional hospital bed and health worker capacity.”

She said she has signed contracts for the state to import 500 health care workers to help. She said she expected the deployment of National Guard members to reach 1,900. Contingents already have been deployed to hospitals around Oregon.

“I am having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure health care for people who are choosing not to get vaccinated,” said Brown.

Brown said she remains focused on three goals as the pandemic continues to surge in Oregon – save lives, keep children in classrooms and keep businesses open.

“We have two simple and effective tools” to do that, Brown said. “We have masks and we have vaccines. At some level, people have to take personal responsibility to protect others around them.”

She said local government leaders, instead of trying to roll back protocols, should be talking to their own employees about getting vaccinated. She said it was “absolutely okay” for people to question the vaccine – but for answers they should turn to health care providers or people who have been vaccinated.

Brown appeared exasperated with local officials pushing back on the state’s strategy. She was asked about a statement in a recent letter by Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe that “it’s not the government’s job to protect our health.”

“They’re playing politics with people’s lives. I am not playing politics. I am not trying to get votes. I am trying to keep Oregonians alive,” Brown said.