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Regional Interests

Distrust contributing to low vaccination rates in Eastern Oregon

Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, pictured in Harney County on August 27, 2021.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, pictured in Harney County on August 27, 2021.

Two Republican state lawmakers from Eastern Oregon are pushing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to allow broad exemptions for health care workers, teachers and other state employees who will soon have to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a documented exemption to keep their jobs. The lawmakers say requiring vaccines will not lead to more shots in arms and will only fuel distrust from rural Oregonians who are already skeptical of government mandates. Meanwhile, a doctor in Harney County is hesitant to recommend the vaccine to patients, instead encouraging them to “read both sides and make a decision.” OPB’s Central Oregon Bureau Chief Emily Cureton spoke to the lawmakers and the Harney County doctor. We get details from her.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  Republican state lawmakers from Eastern Oregon are pushing Governor Kate Brown to allow broad exemptions for healthcare workers, teachers and other State employees. If they want to keep their jobs those employees have another month and a half or so to get fully vaccinated or to provide a documented exemption. The lawmakers, Representative Mark Owens from Crane and Senator Lynn Findley from Vale, say requiring vaccines will only fuel distrust from rural Oregonians who are already skeptical of government mandates. Emily Cureton is OPB’s Central Oregon Bureau Chief. She’s been talking to these lawmakers as well as a Harney County doctor who’s been hesitant to recommend the vaccine to his patients. Can you remind us, first of all, what the Governor’s mandate is for health care workers, for teachers and other State employees?

Emily Cureton:  At the risk of getting too technical, there’s an Executive Order applying to State employees.  Then there are actually two Oregon Health Authority rules that apply to healthcare workers and teachers.  Some of the nuances are different but the gist of all three is the same. People with these jobs must get fully vaccinated or prove a qualified exception to the rule by October 18 in order to keep working at their jobs. And that hard line message came from Governor Brown last month. She said the Delta variant calls for these more drastic measures and the current surge is imperiling the State’s entire health care system.

Miller: So what exactly are these two lawmakers from Eastern Oregon asking Governor Brown to do?

Cureton:  Just to be clear the rules from the Governor and OHA do allow documented medical and religious exceptions.  But Representative Mark Owens and Senator Lynn Findley say that doesn’t go far enough. These two Republicans represent a big chunk of Eastern and parts of Central Oregon and they’re pressing for what they call robust exemptions. I talked to them last week to ask what that means and here’s Senator Findley.

Lynn Findley:  People have personal reasons for that and I’m not going to get into those reasons what they have or whether they’re valid or not valid. But you know, I know some folks that I think are pretty level headed like minded that do not feel that it’s in their best interest to do so.

Cureton:  So is that a yes on exemptions for anybody who’s opposed?

Findley:  Yeah, probably is.

Cureton:  So I really had to press Findley to get him to say yes, anybody opposed for any reason, which I would say is not exactly an exemption but more of overturning the rule. But he said his goal is to make sure workers who provide essential services in rural areas stay in their jobs.

Miller:  So as you’re noting, they’re talking about more robust exemptions.  But it sounds more like they simply want to get rid of the mandate entirely. Are they anti-vaxxers?

Cureton: No, not at all. Both of these lawmakers are open about being vaccinated themselves. Findley said he got the shots pretty much as soon as they were available to his age group. He said doing so, and these are his words, is the right thing to do. Rep. Mark Owens also says he encourages his constituents to get vaccinated, but Owens told me that making it mandatory is only going to cause skeptics in his district to dig in their heels more. Here he is.

Mark Owens:  The mandate is going to have the reverse effect in our areas.  So we’re going to lose hospital staff. Very possible that Harney District Hospital is gonna shut down the emergency services. That was our call to action and that was why we’re trying to work with the Governor to give an off ramp so we can keep an even more horrific situation that is currently happening from becoming a reality.

Cureton:  So Owens and Findley sent this letter opposing the mandates and pushing for, what they call, robust exemptions to the Governor a couple of weeks ago now. And they had sign-off from health leaders in Harney and Grant Counties. This includes the Public Health Directors who said they don’t have the time or the resources to be terminating or rehiring any staff during the current surge of virus cases.

Miller:  So this same argument about losing essential workers at a terrible time, has also been made in recent weeks by the nurses union as well. And educators have talked about it as well.  I have a hard time knowing if it’s being made in good faith or if it’s more a way to lodge a complaint against the Governor.  Is there any way of knowing right now how many teachers or state employees or nurses will actually quit as opposed to getting a vaccine that’s been safely administered more than five billion times?

Cureton:  This remains to be seen on a wide scale. But we do have a sliver of insight into one health system. In the back of the Governor’s mind, she points to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll and her Executive Order on the mandate for state workers that says some adults would only get vaccinated if it was a condition of employment. So there was some research girding this initial push. And now a mandate has come into force for one of Oregon and Washington’s major health systems.

Vancouver Washington-based PeaceHealth went ahead and made the shots mandatory for its employees ahead of Governor Brown’s mid-October deadline. That took effect last week [the first week of September]. So, PeaceHealth spokesperson Deborah Kearns told OPB that this policy did drive up the vaccination rates in the health system. She said from the time the rule was announced in August  to the cut off on September 1st, the share of vaccinated workers rose from 80% to 92%. Of course they still lost people last week. The health system placed about 800 unvaccinated workers on leave.

Miller:  So these lawmakers are essentially saying to the Governor, ‘your plan is going to backfire. It’s going to lead to even more mistrust of government and it’s not going to lead to an increase in vaccination rates’. But are they offering an alternative, a way to increase vaccination rates which, according to what you said earlier, seems like something they would like to see?

Cureton:  Their alternative is really just to take more time. They said the mandates will only undermine the education and trust-building that needs to happen over the long haul. Findley told me he hopes for a more collective attitude and he called the Governor’s current approach dictatorial. The State has its goal to have 80% of adults vaccinated.

And I think it’s worth pointing out here that it lags most dramatically in rural counties. Of the 10 counties with the lowest vaccination rates in the state, half of them are represented by Findley or Owens. And in these five counties, I’m talking about Baker Grant, Harney, Malheur and Lake, more than half of the adult population remains unvaccinated.

Miller:  The lawmakers are not just saying that the mandate is going to backfire. They’re saying that it’s “a gross overreach of authority. That’s legally wrong.” Now, a coalition of police and firefighters are suing the Governor over her vaccine mandates for State workers. How is the Governor responding?

Cureton:  She’s not backing down so far. Brown spokesperson Charles Boyle told me the governor’s goal is to keep schools, businesses and communities open. He cited the staggering nearly 1000% increase in hospitalizations since July. And Boyle said in a statement, “People are dying right now. When we have safe, effective and free vaccines readily available, the Governor is responding to a public health crisis. Elected officials should be calling on their constituents to wear masks and get vaccinated.”

Miller: Let’s turn to the situation in some hospitals in particular. Many of the sickest patients in big parts of rural parts of the State end up at the St. Charles Hospital in Bend. What is the situation there right now?

Cureton:  Not good is the word from the Central Oregon Health System. St. Charles is currently relying on Oregon National Guard troops and about 130 traveling nurses and respiratory therapists contracted by the Oregon Health Authority. They serve anyone who has a serious illness, cancer or gets really hurt. And this is across thousands of square miles of Central and Eastern Oregon. So, putting that in the context, about a third of the available beds in the health system are filled with COVID positive patients. And the vast majority of those patients are unvaccinated people. Overall, the health system has put some numbers out saying that since vaccines became widely available to Oregonians last spring, [among] St. Charles patients with COVID-19, 88% of those patients have not been fully vaccinated.

Miller:  This hospital, St. Charles, put out a video recently urging people to get vaccinated. Can you give us a sense for the messaging that they’re using now?

Cureton:  It’s gut wrenching and it’s more graphic I think than anything I’ve seen thus far. The footage released on August 31 shows a COVID patient. She’s on her side in the bed and she isn’t sure exactly how many days she’s been in the hospital. She’s identified only by her first name, Stephanie. And Stephanie’s voice is faint. It seems like every word she’s saying is a struggle. So we’re not going to play the tape because you can barely hear her. But she says ‘I made a terrible mistake. I should have taken the vaccine. It’s been hell’.

Miller:  One of the big messages that we’ve been hearing a lot for months now is that people should seek information from the medical professionals that they trust the most. From doctors. The hope behind that is that it’s the best way to get hesitant people to get vaccinated, especially if they don’t trust, say Governor Kate Brown or the Oregon Health Authority. But based on your reporting, it seems that even that strategy could backfire at least for some people in parts of rural Eastern Oregon. What have you found?

Cureton:  I found this came up in numerous conversations and sources. But Rep. Mark Owens actually told me that he believes that health care providers in rural areas may be fueling the distrust in vaccine science. Owens is himself from rural Harney County and that County’s vaccination rate for health care workers is just 46%. That’s the lowest in the State. And Owen said he knew of a doctor advising against the shots in Harney County. And it’s his own primary care doctor. Keep in mind Harney County is not a very populated place, just about 7,500 residents. And there are very few family doctors serving the region. So it did not take me long to find multiple independent sources who all identified the same physician as rumored to be advising patients against COVID-19 vaccination. His name is Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick and he has a medical practice in Burns.

Miller:  You actually spoke to Dr. Fitzpatrick. What did you hear?

Cureton:  Basically, he alluded to conspiracy theories without being very specific. And he refused to tell me where he gets his information or where he refers his patients to for information about COVID-19 vaccines. He said, and I’m quoting, “There’s plenty of websites on both sides. Look up who invented the vaccine. Look up the people who are making the questions.”  Dr. Fitzpatrick told me he’s flat out against vaccinations for children and that other patients should quote, ‘read both sides and make a decision on their own’. He declined to say if he asked his patients to do their own research when they seek other types of medical advice from him. And Fitzpatrick led me to believe that he’s only recommended vaccinations for some of his older patients with health problems. But as we’ve seen, nearly 7,000 Oregonians under 60 have been hospitalized with COVID since this pandemic began.

Miller:  You also spoke with Dr. Cynthia Maree, an infectious disease expert at St. Charles Hospital. What was her reaction to Dr. Fitzpatrick’s comments?

Cureton:  She said the role of misinformation right now is disheartening.

Cynthia Maree:  I mean, this is really a preventable disease at this point. And mostly I am very sad for the people that have been given misinformation because I think that they are putting themselves at extreme risk. They’re putting their family members in their community and they’re keeping us from being able to move forward.

Cureton:  Dr. Maree said of people with doubts [that] it’s natural to have questions and people should be empowered to ask them and she just hopes they’ll connect with physicians who point them to reliable sources, one that she suggested as a website called the COVID-19 Real Time Learning Network.

Miller:  You followed up with the Oregon State Medical Board about this? What did you learn?

Cureton:  The Board declined to answer whether it’s investigating any doctors for disseminating misinformation about vaccines. This Board is complaint driven. So it looks for reports from hospitals, patients and others to launch any investigation. I would note that last year it did suspend the licence of a doctor in Polk County who refused to wear a mask and encouraged his patients similarly.

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