PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Amid a surge in coronavirus cases, Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday that Oregon is expanding its COVID-19 vaccine requirement to include all teachers, educators, support staff and volunteers in K-12 schools.
Hospitals across the state are near capacity, and some have no available intensive care unit beds. In the western Oregon town of Roseburg, a COVID-19 patient died in a hospital emergency department while waiting for an ICU bed.
“We need your help, grace and kindness,” CHI Health Medical Center staffers said Thursday on the hospital’s Facebook page. The hospital had expanded ICU care onto other floors, but even that wasn’t enough.
“This patient died in the Emergency Department waiting for an intensive care unit bed,” the staffers wrote, adding that they are reeling “from the extraordinary onslaught of new cases and hospitalizations this devastating virus has caused.”
No details about the patient, who died Wednesday, were released.
Teachers are the latest to be added to the growing statewide vaccine mandate, which also includes health care workers and state employees. They must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after a COVID-19 vaccine receives full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whichever is later.
“There are those who will disagree with the actions I’m taking today,” Brown, a Democrat, said during Thursday’s news conference. “But school is starting across the state, and COVID-19 poses a threat to our kids. Our kids need to be protected, and they need to be in school. And that’s why I’m willing to take the heat for this decision.”
In addition, Brown announced weekly testing for health care workers will no longer be an option for those who want to avoid vaccination. The only opt-out of the requirement is either a medical or religious exemption.
Brown said the decision to eliminate the weekly testing option is because there are not enough resources to “stand up weekly testing systems” while also responding to the current hospitalization crisis.
“This is about having enough trained health care professionals to treat patients,” Brown said. “For over 17 months, they are being stretched to their absolute limits, providing life-saving treatments for the patients in their care.”
Oregon’s mandate is similar to the one announced in Washington state on Wednesday, which along with K-12 teachers also includes employees at the state’s colleges and universities. Last week, California announced a mandate that covers both public and private schools, but allows testing instead of vaccination. Earlier this month, Hawaii required all Department of Education staffers to disclose their vaccination status or face weekly testing.
In an effort to keep Oregon students safe in the upcoming school year and minimize disruptions to in-person instruction, Brown announced last month that masks would be required regardless of vaccination status in K-12 schools. Currently, children younger than 12 are not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’ve seen school districts in the South being upended by COVID-19, with thousands of students quarantined, because they opened without robust safety measures,” Brown said. “Our kids need to be in the classroom full time — we have to do everything we can to make that happen.”
The Oregon Education Association applauded the governor’s mandate, saying the measure will “help improve safety in our schools and in our communities.”
In addition, on Friday a statewide mask mandate was reimplemented; everyone in Oregon who is 5 years or older, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a mask in indoor public spaces.
The increased health and safety measures come as Oregon’s health system is hammered by COVID-19 cases.
“I can’t overstate this: What we are going through right now is unimaginable,” said Jeff Absalon, the chief physician executive for St. Charles Health System in Bend. “We are seeing an incredible surge of patients. … We are overwhelmed. This is really a dire situation.”
On Wednesday, there were just 41 intensive care unit beds available in the state. Oregon’s hospitalization records have been shattered day after day as the highly transmissible delta variant spreads across the state.
As of Wednesday, 845 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in Oregon — five fewer than the previous day, which is the hospitalization record for the state. Before this month, the hospitalization record was 622 in November, during a winter surge and when vaccines were not yet available.
In addition, Oregon set a new daily case record for the state with 2,971 identified coronavirus cases on Thursday.
More than a third of the state’s 652 adult ICU beds are being used for COVID-19 patients. Health officials say the overwhelming majority of hospitalized virus patients are unvaccinated. Around 27% of adults in the state remain unvaccinated.
Health officials say that more than 85% of cases reported between Aug. 1 and Aug. 14 were among unvaccinated people. To date 5.8% of all vaccine breakthrough cases — fully vaccinated people who test positive for the coronavirus — have been hospitalized and less than 1% have died.
“Our health care system is on the verge of collapse in parts of the state. In coming weeks, every Oregon hospital could be over-topped,” said Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority.
For weeks, Oregon health officials have warned that COVID-19 cases, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, would fill hospitals by September if infection rates didn’t slow significantly. Now, a little more than halfway through August, 94% of the state’s hospital beds for adults and 93% of ICU beds are full.
Health officials say patients are spending days in emergency departments because critical care beds aren’t available and hospitals are converting outpatient rooms to ICU units.
On Friday, 500 National Guard members will be deployed to serve as equipment runners in the most stricken hospitals and help with testing.
In an attempt to keep hospital beds open, health systems across Oregon have opted to postpone elective procedures, nurses and physicians say they are overwhelmed, and health officials are desperately urging people to get vaccinated and wear masks.
Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon. Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.