Oct. 7—Oregon's controversial COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care and school workers dominated the discussion during an online town hall meeting held this week by State Sen. Jeff Golden.
Golden said he doesn't support the mandate, while his guest, Dr. Jim Shames, said the vaccination of health care workers will protect vulnerable patients. Shames is Jackson County's medical director and health officer.
Residents who joined the virtual town hall meeting were divided on the subject.
Under an order issued by Gov. Kate Brown, health care and K-12 school workers must get vaccinated by Oct. 18 unless they get a religious or medical exemption. Those who don't could lose their jobs.
Golden, a Democrat who represents southern Jackson County, said he's received a flood of input from residents, with about 90% opposing the mandate. He acknowledged the opinions aren't necessarily a representative sample of all his constituents' views.
Golden said the people who are against mandatory vaccination are so firm in their views that forcing them to get vaccinated could cause permanent damage to the area's sense of community. He said he believes a vaccine mandate is an extraordinary invasion of personal autonomy.
Golden said he's worried about the impact on the Rogue Valley, Oregon and the nation if people are forced to choose between their livelihoods and getting vaccinations they deeply oppose.
President Joe Biden has issued his own vaccination requirement that applies to employees of large companies across the country. They must get vaccinated or do weekly testing starting in November.
Golden said he feels like the past few years have brought society to the brink of civic rupture.
"This feels like this will break something that is not yet broken and that we won't know how to mend," he said of vaccination mandates.
Golden said he's not against vaccination mandates in all pandemic scenarios, such as if the country were swept with Ebola or a resurgence of polio.
Present naturally in some wild animals in Africa, Ebola can infect people and lead to vomiting, diarrhea, liver and kidney damage, bleeding and death. A vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019.
Polio outbreaks once swept America and the world, sometimes leading to paralysis and death. Decades of global vaccination efforts cut cases by more than 99.9% worldwide and saved more than 18 million people from paralysis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.
Golden said he is vaccinated against COVID-19, urges others to get vaccinated and believes vaccination can bring an end to the pandemic sooner.
He said those who aren't vaccinated are straining Rogue Valley hospitals, which had to postpone important procedures and surgeries for a wide variety of patients to deal with a surge of COVID-19 patients that started in the summer.
Golden said perhaps a system could be developed so that unvaccinated people who wind up in the hospital with COVID-19 would not be given an intensive care unit over someone else who needs surgery. He said that would be a way for unvaccinated people to take personal responsibility for their decision.
"I'm not quite sure how that would be worked out, but that seems reasonable to me," he said.
In introducing Dr. Shames, Golden said Shames is a man of impeccable integrity.
Shames said Jackson and Josephine counties appear to be over the worst of the COVID-19 surge that overwhelmed hospitals from summer into September, but COVID-19 hospitalization rates are still similar to those seen during last winter's surge.
He said at the beginning of the pandemic, the virus was mainly killing the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. Now it's not unusual for people in their 30s and 40s to die.
"It's serious. It's moving quickly. It's taking people down in the prime of their lives," he said.
Shames said the state vaccination mandate initially caused concern that health care workers could be lost at a time when there is already a shortage. He said vaccination rates among health care workers continue to rise.
Asante has achieved an 85% vaccination rate for all employees, while Providence is approaching an 85% vaccination rate as well, spokespeople for the two health care systems said Thursday.
Asante operates three hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties, while Providence has a hospital in Medford. Both have clinics and other health care facilities.
Shames said there is a real danger when unvaccinated health care workers are providing care for vulnerable patients.
He said the first responsibility of everyone in health care is to not harm people. Workers who refuse to be vaccinated put patients at risk.
"It could be that if people feel that strongly about it, especially in a hospital setting, that perhaps they're really in the wrong line of work. And they might find themselves feeling perfectly fulfilled doing something else. But I personally don't think that you should be working around vulnerable people, sick people, with the risk of passing COVID-19 to them," Shames said.
He said vaccinated people can still catch and carry the virus, but unvaccinated people are usually much more contagious.
A man named Josh said COVID-19 vaccinations carry risks. He noted Sweden halted the use of the Moderna vaccine in young people because of the risk of complications like myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.
The identities of people speaking during the videoconference town hall meeting weren't always clear.
Shames said heart problems from vaccination are rare and usually don't last long. In contrast, COVID-19 can cause severe heart problems, blood clots and other serious problems.
Rogue Valley cardiologists are treating some COVID-19 survivors who have seen their heart capacity drop to 25% of normal, sometimes for months.
Local resident Dasja Dolan said the vaccination mandate for health care workers is the right thing to do. She said those who refuse to be vaccinated are in the wrong profession.
"I don't want to be treated by a person who has not been vaccinated. I would just refuse," she said.
Dolan said many health care workers are frustrated about having to treat unvaccinated people who fall ill with COVID-19.
Dolan said COVID-19 can be deadly. With so much resistance to vaccination, she said she fears what would happen if something even more dangerous broke out in America, such as Ebola or polio.
Another town hall participant, Darcy Van Vuren, said health care workers have been working to save people's lives, and now their jobs are being taken away if they don't get vaccinated.
She said they should not have to get vaccinated if they already had COVID-19.
Getting vaccinated and getting COVID-19 both help people gain immunity, although vaccination comes with far fewer risks, research shows.
Van Vuren said people who've already had COVID-19 are scared about what will happen if they later get vaccinated.
Shames said the evidence is clear that getting vaccinated after having COVID-19 provides additional protection.
Golden said workers who've had COVID-19 should be able to take an antibody test, and if they have protective antibodies, they shouldn't have to get vaccinated.
Van Vuren said there is too much focus on vaccination, rather than COVID-19 treatments, including ivermectin.
Ivermectin is most commonly used to treat parasitic worms and lice in animals and people. It's not shown to be safe or effective at preventing or treating the COVID-19 virus, according to the FDA.
Taking too much, especially ivermectin intended for horses and cows, can lead to an overdose with vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, coma and death, the FDA said.
Poison control centers and emergency rooms started responding to a surge in ivermectin overdoses after the medication was popularized as a COVID-19 treatment on the internet and by celebrities.
Shames said monoclonal antibodies are an effective treatment for COVID-19 and they're available through Asante and La Clinica. He said people should focus on proven strategies that work.
The lab-made antibodies help prevent hospitalization in vulnerable people when given early enough, according to Asante.
Local educator Meryl Roberts said she also believes early treatment is not getting enough attention. She said she had two colleagues who were vaccinated against COVID-19 but still got sick.
Roberts said the vaccination mandate will cripple schools.
"We are at a point where we will potentially have to go to online instruction because so many people are being prepared to be put on unpaid leave this week," she said.
Roberts said the divisive vaccination mandates are indeed breaking the community.
However, another teacher said she favors a vaccination mandate for students, not just adults in schools. She said there has been a rise in cases and there is already a shortage of teachers and substitutes.
Wider vaccination would help keep students, staff and their families safe, she said.
Oregon's governor hasn't issued a vaccine mandate for eligible students. COVID-19 vaccinations are currently available for youth 12 and older.
As early as Jan. 1, 2022, California's governor could add COVID-19 shots to the list of vaccinations children have to get to attend school in that state. Those already include measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and polio.
Parent Daniel Tharp said he's taken aback by the inference that a vaccine mandate constitutes a loss of bodily autonomy.
He said his kids had to be vaccinated in order to go to public school so they won't infect their classmates with infectious diseases. If they weren't vaccinated and he had to home-school them, he couldn't go to work.
"The moment we're asking adults to take responsibility, suddenly it's an issue of bodily autonomy," Tharp said.
He said there are many examples where people don't have absolute rights. For example, people have a right to drink alcohol, but they don't have a right to drink and drive because that puts people at risk.
The issue of illegal marijuana grows was also raised during the town hall meeting.
Golden said illegal grows are rampant in Southern Oregon. Among a host of other problems, some growers are stealing scarce water and using workers in conditions approaching slavery.
On the wildfire and smoke front, he said more needs to be done to prevent catastrophic fires in the future and deal with smoke impacts.
The Oregon Legislature recently went through a contentious redistricting process after gaining a new seat in Congress. Golden said the process is too political and an independent commission should draw redistricting boundaries.
Republicans said the new mapping benefits Democrats while silencing the voices of many Oregonians, especially those in rural areas. Republicans believe Democrats will win five of the six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.