Aug. 5—The Oregon Health Authority recently denied requests by a local school board member and a lab tech to stop COVID-19 vaccination and masking requirements for school teachers, staff and volunteers.
The OHA issued letters July 26 to Eagle Point school board member Chery Stritenberg and Angela Payant, a Medford-based histo-technician, after the two separately filed petitions to challenge masking and vaccination rules.
They sought an immediate repeal of the entire rule requiring school coronavirus vaccinations and amendment of the masking in schools rule to say that only people showing symptoms of COVID-19 should be required to wear face coverings.
Payant and Stritenberg, who don't know each other personally but are part of a group of Oregon parents critical of coronavirus prevention strategies, filed their petitions April 27.
"I can't say that I was surprised," Stritenberg said. "I was definitely disappointed, because when I went through the petition process as a regular citizen and trying to think through both sides, I really was trying to take into consideration the concerns of others, as well as the stance I have had with many other people that feel like they haven't been heard."
Asked for her reaction to the OHA's decision, Payant wrote in an email, "Needless to say, I'm extremely disappointed. I listened to the public comments over the phone last time (over four hours), and not one person was in support of making masks a permanent rule; yet here we are."
To date, Stritenberg and Payant are the only two petitioners to request to amend or repeal any OHA rule, according to an agency official.
Their petitions triggered an extended comment period, from May 9 to June 10, garnering "around 600" comments for each rule, according to the OHA. Following this period, agency officials reviewed the comments, as well as multiple factors, including whether there was a continued need for the rules currently in place.
The three-page OHA letters, signed by Public Health Director Rachael Banks and State Epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger, state, in part, that the agency wants to keep the K-12 masking rule in place "to allow OHA the flexibility to respond to future increases in the community transmission of COVID-19."
It's a rule Stritenberg could do without.
"It truly just gives the ability to flip that switch at any time," she said. "I would rather not have masks at all, but I put (a symptomatic requirement) as the alternative. You should have the right to (wear a mask). Kudos to people who are still concerned enough to wear a mask."
She noted when she came down with COVID-19 in January, she wore a mask to protect her husband and son, but they also contracted coronavirus.
When it comes to masking, Payant — whose resume includes years at Asante — is particularly critical of the types of masks people wear and believes that far too many are not properly fitted.
"When I first worked at Asante, I was sent to the hospital nurse to be fitted for an N95 mask in case I came into contact with a tuberculosis case," Payant wrote. "Is anyone being professionally fitted for the masks they're wearing? Doubtful."
In its letters to the petitioners, the OHA wrote that masks have been found to be effective.
"Masks, when worn correctly and consistently, reduce the transmission of COVID-19," the letter stated. "Masks protect not only children and staff in school, but also, they help protect others in the community who may be vulnerable to more severe COVID-19 disease such as grandparents or immuno-compromised family members."
OHA added that "at this time," there are no plans to reinstate universal masking in schools in the coming school year.
Stritenberg, who said she is not vaccinated against coronavirus, talked about why she wanted to immediately repeal this OHA rule as opposed to amending it.
"I realize the idea of leaving the religious exemption in there probably would have seemed more flexible, but ... we have evidence that shows it does not prevent you from transmitting or getting COVID-19 — it never did," Stritenberg said. "And now, with all the new variants, it absolutely didn't."
The way Stritenberg sees it, the alternative to anyone getting the coronavirus is for people to focus on their own personal health.
"If you look at the layers of what contributed to those people that had severe outcomes and death, none of them died by COVID-19 alone," she said.
Payant, who was vaccinated against COVID-19 during a clinical trial, echoed Stritenberg's point about how people respond to COVID-19 differently, even if they are vaccinated.
"You can argue that their response to the virus could have been much worse if they hadn't gotten their shot, yet I have several close friends who did not get the shot, contracted COVID-19 and did just fine," Payant wrote. "I know of two people who died from COVID-19 who did not get the shot but were also very unhealthy to begin with."
When it comes to schools, Payant complained to the OHA that she never had to show proof of vaccination to volunteer until the pandemic.
"I refuse to show my card to gain entrance into any venue, and I wish more people would do the same," she wrote. "My health is no one's responsibility, and your health is none of my business."
In its letters, the OHA responded, in part, that since the shots are safe and hospitalization and death is rare if people are up to date on their shots, such agents help in "minimizing staff time out of work and improving consistency in in-person school instruction."
The agency added that although COVID-19 serious outcomes and deaths are lower in children compared with adults, it's not harmless to youth and can even lead to death.
"Reducing the spread and burden of communicable disease relies on all of us to work together to implement protections that benefit individuals, as well as the entire community, including those in the community who may be more vulnerable to severe illness or death from disease," OHA wrote in its letters to Payant and Stritenberg.
Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.