The district that provides ambulance service to the northeast corner of Baker County, including the Halfway and Oxbow areas, has notified county officials that it can’t meet its minimum response time due to Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, which took effect Monday, Oct. 18.

The mandate, which Gov. Kate Brown announced in August, requires health care workers, including ambulance employees, to be vaccinated or to have an approved medical or religious exception if they are to continue treating patients.

In an Oct. 12 letter to the Baker County Board of Commissioners, Nora Aspy, chair of the Halfway/Oxbow Ambulance Service, and team leader Dana Simrell wrote that due to the mandate, “our service is unable to meet the minimum response time of 45 minutes, 90% of the time.”

The letter does not say how many employees are affected by the mandate because they’re not vaccinated or don’t have an exception.

Jason Yencopal, the county’s emergency manager, said ambulance services, which are overseen by the county, are required to notify the county if they anticipate a change in their service level.

The minimum response time is one such criteria, Yencopal said.

The nearest ambulance service to Halfway/Oxbow is operated by Eagle Valley, in the Richland area about 12 miles by Highway 86 from Halfway.

The Oct. 12 letter notes that the Halfway/Oxbow ambulance service checked with Eagle Valley, and that the latter, “due to the mandates ... will not able to provide consistent mutual aid.”

The letter concludes with a request for an “ambulance and crew to help keep the response rate low for those located in our assigned service area.”

Yencopal said the county’s other ambulance provider, in addition to Halfway/Oxbow and Eagle Valley, is the Baker City Fire Department.

The Baker City department, which provides ambulance service in the city and in much of the rest of the county, has vaccination cards or approved exceptions for all its employees who staff ambulances, City Manager Jon Cannon said on Monday.

“We’re moving forward with all the staff that we have on hand,” Cannon said.

When asked how many of the department’s 16 full-time firefighters, and approximately six part-time paid staff, are vaccinated, and how many requested and received an exception, Cannon said he is “hesitant to give numbers because there are HIPPA laws and personnel laws and if I give an exact ratio, then it starts to give information on what arguably should be private.”

HIPPA is a federal law that keeps people’s medical records confidential.

Yencopal and County Commissioner Mark Bennett said county officials are looking for ways to provide the ambulance and crew that the Halfway/Oxbow service requested in the letter.

The county has requested aid from the state, Bennett said.

County commissioners on Sept. 22 approved an emergency declaration stating that the governor’s vaccine mandate for health care workers could leave both ambulance providers and volunteer fire districts in the county, whose members often are the first to respond to traffic crashes and other emergencies, unable to fulfill that mission as often as they have in the past.

The county has several volunteer districts whose members respond to emergencies as well as fires, but which, unlike ambulance services, are not certified or equipped to transport patients.

In the Huntington area, which does not have a local ambulance provider, calls are usually handled by either a private company in the Treasure Valley, or by the Baker City Fire Department, Yencopal said.

He said the private ambulance operator in the Treasure Valley might not be as available to respond to calls in the Huntington area, including traffic crashes on Interstate 84, due to effects of the mandate.

The governor’s mandate also applies to hospitals.

Mark Snider, public relations and digital strategy coordinator for the Saint Alphonsus Health System, in response to a question from the Herald about staffing at the Baker City hospital, wrote on Monday, Oct. 18 that “we expect a high level of compliance with the Governor’s requirement, and will assess staffing after the deadline.”

According to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), of the 314 licensed health care workers in Baker County, 69% were fully vaccinated as of Oct. 4.

That’s the ninth-lowest rate among Oregon’s 36 counties.

Among counties in the region, Union County has the highest rate, at 77%. Umatilla and Wallowa counties both have a 70% rate, while Grant County is at 58% and Malheur County at 54%.

Statewide, 82% of licensed health care workers are fully vaccinated, according to OHA.

Baker School District

Of the district’s 263 employees, 208 — 79% — are vaccinated, and all 55 of the remaining employees have a medical or religious exception, District Superintendent Mark Witty said on Monday morning, Oct. 18.

He said only one district employee has resigned due to a philosophical objection to the vaccine mandate.

That employee, who is a certified worker — a group that includes teachers and other classroom staff — left in mid September, which gave the district enough time to hire a replacement before the mandate deadline, Witty said.

Vaccination rates for the district’s three groups of employees:

• Certified and administrative — 80%. This group includes the district’s approximately 111 certified employees, including teachers.

• Classified — 78%. This group includes non-teaching staff such as bus drivers and custodians. There are about 110 classified employees.

• Confidential — 79%. There are 22 employees in this category, which includes some non-teaching administrative staff.

Witty, who said he is fully vaccinated, did not have a breakdown, by the three categories, of how many of the 55 district employees have medical or religious exceptions.

He said the majority of those are religious exceptions.

Witty said the district did not deny any requests for exceptions.

“We didn’t go over those with a fine-tooth comb; I don’t know who would want to,” Witty said.

He said he is confident that employees who submitted a religious exception form did so earnestly, and that he respects their choice.

Employees who chose an exception rather than being vaccinated are required to either wear an N95 mask while working, or take weekly COVID-19 tests. Witty said most of the 58 employees who aren’t vaccinated chose the weekly testing option.

Those workers will take the test at home, probably on Sunday evening or Monday morning, and the district will then send the test kits to a laboratory in Corvallis. The OHA is paying for the testing, Witty said.

He expects to receive results within one day.

Witty said the weekly tests are available for all district employees, and he said some fully vaccinated employees also have signed up to receive the weekly test kits.

He said he’s grateful for the cooperation of the district’s employees, including its two unions, one of which represents certified employees, the other representing classified staff.

“We have people honestly disagreeing with the mandate, there’s no doubt about that,” Witty said. “This doesn’t satisfy everybody, but at the end of the day our staff is here to serve students, and they want to try to do that.”

Department of Corrections

Most employees at state prisons, including the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City, have until Nov. 30 to be fully vaccinated due to an agreement between the state and one labor union approved Friday, Oct. 15, said Jennifer Black, communications manager for the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Employees who are partially vaccinated by Oct. 18 have until Nov. 30 to fully comply, Black said.

This applies to most correctional department employees statewide.

“There are just a few who are subject to a straight October 18th compliance date,” Black wrote.

As of press time Monday afternoon, Black did not have compliance statistics for Powder River or other individual prisons.

For the entire Department of Corrections, the compliance breakdown as of Monday:

• Fully vaccinated — 67%

• Religious exception — 19%

•Medical exception — 1%

• Not enough information to verify status — 10%

• In the process of being verified — 3%

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(2) comments

pyoung

I think you need to re-work this article. It's not the mandate (to get a life-saving vaccine) that is the problem, it is the so-called "health workers" & other "public servants" who are not getting vaccinated that is the problem. Did they get a polio shot?, a flu shot? What is different about a Covid-19 shot.

BP

The difference is that a Democrat is telling them they need it.

I don’t buy it until they report numbers of staff lost. It’s like the county commissioners putting out a statement about hospital staff that was false, it’s all political chest beating.

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