Thousands of Oregon healthcare employees, K-12 educators and state workers who were told they must get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or risk losing their jobs found an easy way out: They applied for religious or medical exceptions.
While some employers rigorously scrutinized these requests and accepted only a smaller number they determined to be sincere, many other employers in especially rural, vaccine-reluctant parts of the state gave the nod to every employee who asked for one.
That includes school districts in Roseburg, Medford, Grants Pass, Klamath County, Prineville and Ontario, where 21% to 26% of staff applied for exceptions to the vaccine mandate and 100% of them were approved.
Other examples abound, including at the city of Medford, where 44% of the city’s emergency medical technicians asked for and received exceptions. That means only 56% of the city’s EMTs are fully inoculated against COVID-19.
Now more than 10 days after Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccination mandate took hold, a crisper picture of its successes and failures has emerged. The governor’s office says her directive pushed thousands more employees to get vaccinated and heralded the mandate announced in August as a victory.
But in many pockets of the state, employers have undermined the effectiveness of the governor’s directives – driven in some cases by intense pressure from vaccine-adverse employees, their own anti-mandate views, faith in the honesty of their workers, or a desire to avoid labor shortages or lawsuits.
At least 22 states have enacted COVID-19 vaccination requirements for workers, with Brown’s mandate one of the toughest because it encompassed a broader cross-section of professions than most states. But it also had a weak point, carving out exceptions for religious and medical reasons while establishing only vague criteria that unvaccinated employees must meet.
Under state rules, employees seeking a religious exception have only to attest to “sincerely held religious beliefs” against vaccination or provide a doctor’s note with a medical reason for forgoing inoculation. The overwhelming majority of exception applicants have cited religious reasons for their objections to the vaccines, even though no major religions have taken a position against it.
Brown left it up to individual employers to decide which applications to accept or reject. Some health care providers have been especially strict, approving fewer than 10% of requested exceptions. But the system has opened a door for employers in especially conservative parts of the state to rubber stamp every request.
That has confounded some of the mandate’s most avid supporters, who ask what the point of requiring vaccinations is if exceptions are so easy to come by.
“It really seems kind of like a joke,” said Carolyn Moon, a mother of two who lives in Klamath Falls and believes many employers skirted the spirit of the law. “Exceptions should be much harder to get. It doesn’t seem like they really looked if they were legit or not. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to exploit this loophole and approve everyone.’”
The largest district in her county, the 6,800-student Klamath County School District, granted exceptions to 26% of its employees, the highest rate of more than a dozen districts surveyed by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her children’s district, Klamath Falls City Schools, was more selective, approving all 19% of employees who asked for exceptions.
Moon nonetheless worries her younger child, who is 6 and not old enough to be vaccinated, is at greater risk of infection while attending in-person school.
Moon is skeptical that all employees with approved exceptions had authentic reasons for avoiding vaccination.
“It seems really unbelievable,” she said.
Vaccination is the “pathway out,” says governor
The governor’s office isn’t focusing on the number of workers who got vaccine exceptions but instead is hailing the mandate’s triumphs – a wave of new inoculations.
Last week, the day the mandate went into effect, Brown posted a video message thanking workers who fell under the requirements for getting vaccinated — and helping save lives, keep schools and businesses open and hospitals from being overwhelmed.
“Moving forward, vaccination is the only pathway out of this pandemic,” Brown said.
Statewide, about 85% of 40,000 executive branch employees who were subject to the mandate are fully vaccinated. That’s far more than where the figure stood — at about 68% — when the governor announced the new vaccination requirements more than two months ago.
The 17-percentage-point increase significantly outpaced the 6-percentage-point gain among the general population of adult Oregonians during the same time period. Today, about 72% of adults in the state are fully vaccinated.
The numbers are less clear for health care workers and K-12 school employees because no state agency is tracking those rates.
Despite the lack of complete data, a spokesperson for Brown, Charles Boyle, said Brown’s mandates had “largely accomplished what they were established to do” – and that was to increase the number of Oregonians who’ve gotten shots.
“There is no question that vaccination rates for state employees, K-12 educators, and health care workers increased over the last several months — with many employers now reporting vaccination rates well over 90%,” Boyle said in an email.
But state officials haven’t been able to home in on the number of employers granting blanket exceptions to any worker who asked for one.
In fact, Oregon officials can’t provide a tally of executive branch workers who requested exceptions, making it impossible to calculate the state’s own approval rates. The state’s human resources arm, the Department of Administrative Services, hopes to compile figures for state employees next week. They won’t have data on health care or school employees.
It’s already clear some agencies have far higher shares of employees with exceptions. For example, just 2% of workers in the governor’s office received exemptions, 17% at the Department of Transportation and 20% at the Department of Corrections.
Boyle didn’t answer questions from The Oregonian/OregonLive about whether the governor believes employers who granted 100% of exception requests undermined the spirit of the mandate and whether Brown is considering tightening the rules in the future by establishing a much higher bar for approving these requests.
Fights over individual rights
One thing, however, is clear: Tightening the rules would encounter further resistance from many parts of Oregon, where many say Brown’s vaccination mandates were an attempt to rob them of their “freedom of choice” — and yet another reason they’d like giant swaths of Oregon to become part of more like-minded Idaho.
Irate county commissioners and school boards have sent the governor angry letters and passed resolutions expressing their distaste for the mandates. They asked the governor to rescind them. And when she didn’t, many found a go-round.
Jared Cordon, superintendent of Roseburg Public Schools, which granted exceptions to 22% of its staff, said he has no issue with his district approving every exception request submitted because every employee who applied qualified.
“We followed the letter of the law,” Cordon said.
Cordon said he’s comfortable with more than one in five of his staff remaining unvaccinated because he has seen no evidence of outbreaks within the district’s classrooms. He attributes that success to a number of COVID-19 safety precautions, such as employees who are feeling sick taking rapid tests to make sure they’re not contagious with SARS-CoV-2.
Cordon said he also personally disagrees with the government making the choice for individuals. In one-on-one conversations he said he had with employees who didn’t want to get vaccinated but were still struggling with the decision, Cordon told them they didn’t need to worry they would lose his respect.
“I said, ‘I wouldn’t think any less of you. I do really think vaccination is a choice that people really need to make,’” he recalled.
Some employers found the task of disapproving religious applications, which meant disputing the authenticity of employees’ stated religious beliefs, an especially daunting role.
“The Crook County School District is not in the business of determining the validity of an individual’s religious beliefs,” spokesperson Jason Carr said in an email.
The district approved 100% of those requests, and by doing so, managed to avoid a staffing crisis, Carr said. One in four district employees remain unvaccinated but still on the job.
“We have retained almost all of our employees and avoided major disruption to our schools by working collaboratively with our staff,” Carr said. “Had we gone down the road of rejecting religious exceptions, it’s highly likely we’d be in a much less enviable position.”
Even in vaccine-friendly areas of the state, such as Portland area school districts including Hillsboro and Gresham-Barlow, officials said they approved all exception requests as long as applicants met the requirements set out by the state, including stating that they had a sincere religious belief against vaccination.
The big difference compared to more rural parts of the state, however, was that far fewer employees — about 4% in Hillsboro and 7% in Gresham-Barlow — wanted exceptions.
Nothing in the state guidelines prevents school districts or other employers from more thoroughly reviewing exception requests.
Portland Public Schools received requests from about 2% of employees, or 158 people, rejecting about 30%. Chief human resources officer Sharon Reese said the district would not approve requests, for example, if applicants found a doctor willing to say they shouldn’t be required to get vaccinated because they already had natural immunity or were young and healthy.
When asked why the district took that more selective course — potentially setting it up for lawsuits from employees who’ve been denied — Reese said the district believes in the vaccination mandate.
“PPS is not approving every religious or medical exception request because that would undermine the intended and important purpose of a vaccine requirement,” Reese said in an email. “An exception granted on any basis has no basis at all, and it does not honor the spirit of the vaccine requirement or the right to legitimate, good-faith exceptions.”
Oregon Health & Science University appears to have an even more stringent vetting process. The organization denied more than 93% of exception applications, approving just 30 of 424 religious or medical requests processed so far.
That amounts to OHSU granting about 0.1% of its more than 22,000 employees, students and volunteers permission to remain unvaccinated.
OHSU told staff, students and volunteers that applications might be denied if they claimed a religious exception solely because they objected to the vaccines being tested on a fetal line of cells or if they’d received any other vaccinations in the past five years. Those who claimed a medical exception based on concerns they were allergic would have to show documentation that they were allergic to at least one of the ingredients in each of the three vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S.
Though not all health care systems contacted by The Oregonian/OregonLive shared their numbers, hospitals did appear to be the most selective in approving exception requests, with a few Portland area hospitals reporting 95% to 97% of their staff fully inoculated.
Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg, however, stood out on the other end of the spectrum.
Despite repeated requests, hospital officials didn’t provide the newsroom with statistics, including the percentage of exception requests it approved. But a hospital representative did tell Douglas County radio station KQEN that 75% of the medical center’s staff are fully vaccinated and 25% have been granted exceptions or are in the process of getting ones.
Chief Nursing Officer Nancy Hoyt said avoiding a staffing shortage has been a major concern.
The vast differences in employers’ willingness to approve exception requests doesn’t surprise Jim Oleske, a Lewis & Clark law professor who is studying vaccination mandates and religious exceptions.
“We probably expect different agencies with different constituencies that have different views on vaccine mandates to probably influence their decisions of how liberally or conservatively they’re applying the religious accommodation provision,” Oleske said.
In other words, employers in sections of the state that oppose the mandate might be more likely to universally grant exceptions. As long as they follow the letter of the law — if not the spirit — they should be on sound legal ground, Oleske said.
On the flip side, if employers reject religious exception requests — angering individual employees — they’re more likely to face the legal headache of getting sued.
“If you deny some, you are going to face legal challenges,” Oleske said.
Grants Pass resident Todd Gallaher said he’s come to accept reality: That for whatever the reason, many people in his community won’t get vaccinated.
He said he’s seen anti-vaccine signs urging residents to “Say no to the poke” pop up on properties, including on school grounds. He received an unsolicited, anti-vaccine newspaper in the mail one day, and marveled at the amount of money it must have cost to blanket the town with it.
So it wasn’t a shock, he said, when he learned the Grants Pass School District signed off on all exception requests from employees – allowing more than one in five to still show up to work unvaccinated.
He and his wife, who has brain cancer and other serious health problems, had been hoping to send their daughters, ages 4 and 5, to preschool and kindergarten after the governor’s Oct. 18 mandate took effect.
But after reviewing the school district’s vaccination percentages and the rates of ongoing spread countywide, the couple decided to keep their daughters home until they’re old enough to get vaccinated, he said.
“What can I do?” Gallaher said. “Half the town isn’t going to get vaccinated here. That’s just the way it is. It’s all about maintaining their freedom.”