PORTLAND, Oregon — Kaiser Permanente, PeaceHealth and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) will require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, despite a 1989 Oregon law that prohibits hospitals from doing so as a condition of employment.
Both Kaiser Permanente and PeaceHealth are based outside the state but have clinics and staff across Oregon.
The COVID vaccine requirement will apply to all Oregon employees, although some exemptions will be allowed, both organizations confirmed.
The decision to require the vaccine comes as COVID cases and hospitalizations surge across the state due to the highly transmissible delta variant. Today, Oregon reported its highest daily case count since January.
"The potential harm from variants now circulating makes it imperative that we do more. The approved COVID-19 vaccines are the single best way to protect ourselves and reduce the likelihood of harming others," PeaceHealth's Chief Physician Executive Douglas Koekkoek said at a press conference on Tuesday.
It's unclear how the health systems plan to enforce the requirement, given the Oregon law. KGW Investigates asked Dr. Koekkoek how PeaceHealth plans to implement the mandate.
"I think that law is certainly a barrier. I think we're looking at this as a public health emergency. We're hoping to have some support from our government officials...we are calling this a requirement, there are ways for there to be a medical exemption," said Dr. Koekkoek.
In an email sent to KGW on Tuesday, an OHSU spokesperson said the organization is still working through the details of its vaccine requirement with learners, employees, faculty, leadership and unions.
Those associated with OHSU will be required to either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or formally decline. Staff who decline will be required to complete vaccine-related education and follow additional safety measures, which may include regular COVID-19 testing, according to OHSU.
"State law prohibits mandatory vaccination as a requirement of employment for certain employees, including hospital workers. Our policy will provide OHSU employees the opportunity to decline and complete other materials to be compliant, although we continue to urge everyone to become vaccinated," OHSU Senior Media Relations Specialist Franny White told KGW in an email.
Other major health systems, including Salem Health, Providence Portland and Legacy Health are encouraging employees to get the COVID vaccine but all three said that Oregon law prevents them from mandating it.
"I wish the state law were different. That would allow us to entertain the discussion around this decision but right now we have a law in place and we are abiding by it," said Salem Health's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ralph Yates.
One group that remains opposed to vaccine mandates — the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA).
"We are deeply concerned that a vaccine mandate outside of contract negotiations will result in more health care workers leaving the bedside at a time when Oregon’s hospitals are already experiencing serious staffing issues," ONA said in a statement last week.
The deadline for employees to get vaccinated varies by organization. PeaceHealth is requiring all caregivers to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 31. OHSU is targeting Sept. 1 for its staff and students and Kaiser Permanente hopes to have its workforce fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.
It's unclear what action, if any, hospitals will take against employees who are not vaccinated or exempt by the proposed deadlines.
The Portland Veterans Administration (VA) hospital is also requiring employees to be vaccinated, however it is subject to a federal mandate that trumps state law.