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Regional Interests

The VA will mandate vaccines for its health workers in Oregon. Other hospitals in the state can’t.

Portland VA Medical Center.
Portland VA Medical Center.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced it will require COVID-19 vaccinations for its front-line health care employees, including doctors, nurses, and dentists.

Employees will have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated and can get the shot for free at any VA facility.

It makes the VA the first health care system in Oregon to require the vaccination; state law generally prevents such mandates for health care workers.

The policy will apply to the VA Portland health care system and all of its facilities, a spokesman said. Of 4,458 staff, 3,558 are currently vaccinated and 900 are not.

Nationwide, many health care systems are making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for their workforces, as vaccination rates have stalled and the delta variant is leading to yet another surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

Oregon is the only state in the nation that prohibits employers from requiring health care workers to be vaccinated.

“Virtually any employer in Oregon can require employees to be vaccinated, but hospitals are prohibited from doing so,” said Michael Cox, vice president of public affairs for the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.

“We’re urging state policymakers to lift the prohibition.”

Of about 120,000 licensed health workers statewide, 70 percent are vaccinated, according to data collected by state licensing boards.

The VA operates medical centers in Portland, Roseburg and White City, as well as 20 smaller health clinics scattered across the state.

Separately, Oregon’s state veterans agency, the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, runs two nursing homes that suffered deadly outbreaks during the pandemic. In March 2020, a veterans home in Lebanon had 38 people test positive for the virus, and nine people die. In October, an outbreak at a home in The Dalles affected 52 people and killed four — and that nursing home reported a new outbreak, infecting seven people, just this month. But as state, rather than federal facilities, it’s not clear whether they will be directly affected by the new federal mandate.

The national mandate followed the recent deaths from COVID-19 of four unvaccinated VA employees, and an outbreak at a VA law enforcement training center.

“We’re mandating vaccines for Title 38 employees because it’s the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country,” Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Dennis McDonough said in a prepared statement.

Medical groups — including the American Hospital Association, American Nurses Association, and American College of Physicians — issued a joint statement Monday urging health care employers to require vaccination.

They called it the logical fulfillment of their responsibility to put the health of patients and long term care residents first.

In Oregon, a state law bars most employers from requiring that health care workers get vaccinations, including the COVID-19 shot. But that prohibition doesn’t apply to vaccinations required by federal or state law, rule or regulation.

Two Oregon experts in employment law said the new federal requirement would probably trump that state law, if tested in court.

Paula Barran, founding partner at the labor and employment firm Barran Liebman LLP, said the VA would have made its policy using authority granted to it by federal law.

“There is a very good likelihood that the federal law and the federal requirement would supersede Oregon state law,” she said.

Barran said, to her knowledge, Oregon’s law prohibiting the mandatory vaccination of health care workers has never been tested. Melissa Healy, a partner in the labor and employment group at Stoel Rives LLP in Portland, said the same.

And on federal land, Healy said, federal rules apply.

“The VA is federal property and we’ve seen precedent of federal institutions being able to have heightened requirements, even when they aren’t consistent with state law,” she said.

Both lawyers pointed to different scenarios involving cannabis use to illustrate the occasional tension between state and federal law.

“Marijuana is ‘legal’ in Oregon, but you can still be tested for it and terminated for it if you work for the federal government,” Healy said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting