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Kaiser Permanente bucks Oregon law, mandates COVID vaccine for all employees

A file photo from a January 2021 COVID-19 vaccination clinic held at the Oregon Convention Center.
A file photo from a January 2021 COVID-19 vaccination clinic held at the Oregon Convention Center.

One of Oregon’s largest private health systems is bucking state law — or getting out ahead of it — by requiring its health care workers, along with the rest of its staff, to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

In an announcement Monday on its website, Kaiser Permanente said it is starting to mandate the vaccines for physicians and all employees.

“Making vaccination mandatory is the most effective way we can protect our people, our patients, and the communities we serve,” chief executive officer Greg A. Adams said in an online statement, in which he pressed other health care providers to make a similar move. “We encourage all health systems and business and industry leaders across the country to play a role in ending the pandemic by doing the same.”

Oregon law prohibits employers from requiring health care workers get vaccinated as a condition of employment, though at least one other health system — the U.S. Veterans Administration — has taken a similar step. Kaiser is based in Oakland, California, but said its new mandate applies in Oregon. In a statement from the corporate office in Portland, Kaiser acknowledged the 1989 state law at issue, summarizing it to mean “health care workers do not need to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.”

“However, because of the growing seriousness of the current situation, the new risks and increased cases caused by the delta variant, as well as the priority to keep patients and employees safe, we will act to apply the vaccination requirement in the Northwest region,” according to a statement sent by Kaiser’s director of integrated services Michael G. Foley.

Foley said Kaiser is working with state health officials and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to “support vaccination to the fullest extent permitted by law and any future guidance.”

A provision in the law allows health care employers to mandate immunizations for their workforces if state law or regulations require the shots. A spokesman for Gov. Brown said she expects to announce a decision about vaccination and testing policies for health care workers later this week.

Leading health organizations in the state, including the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, have been pressing state leaders for weeks to open the door for health care organizations to enact vaccination mandates.

The Oregon Nurses’ Association, meanwhile, has said it is not seeking any change to the law. The group plans to survey its members this week about vaccine mandates.

“We urge all people who can get vaccinated to do so, but we also believe that any mandates related to vaccinations must be the subject of negotiations between employers and represented workers prior to any policy change in a facility,” ONA said.

The American Nurses Association, the national group ONA is a constituent member of, is among the many health care professional associations that called for vaccine mandates for health workers last week.

Kaiser said employees can request medical or religious exemptions. According to the company statement, workers will be provided with education materials on the effectiveness of vaccines and can get paid for the time they take to get vaccinated. The nonprofit estimated that nearly 78% of employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and more than 95% of doctors are vaccinated.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting