UNION COUNTY — La Grande Fire Chief Emmitt Cornford, like many people, isn’t looking forward to Monday, Oct. 18.

That’s the day Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates take effect. The mandatory vaccine mandate will apply to state employees, health care workers, and teachers, support staff and volunteers in kindergarten through 12th grade schools. All will be required to be fully vaccinated by as early as Oct. 18 or six weeks after full FDA approval of the COVID-19 vaccines, whichever is later.

Cornford said the vaccine mandate is causing extreme concern among his firefighters and his emergency medical technicians.

“I think we could lose a number of positions over that,” Cornford said at the La Grande City Council meeting on Sept. 1. “We just can’t afford that.”

‘It’s a real tough spot to be in’

The fire and emergency services employs 12 firefighters, three captains, one administrative assistant and one fire chief. Cornford and the fire department have been looking to fill an open position since December and even modified the application process to allow students in their paramedic program to apply as long as they can finish the program within 90 days of hiring.

The vaccine mandate no longer allows for unvaccinated employees to receive regular testing if they choose not to receive a vaccine. Employees in the department will either have to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, or file a religious or medical exemption. If any unvaccinated employees choose to get vaccinated before the deadline, Cornford still is concerned with the time frame to get both shots before Oct. 18.

“Even if we have individuals that choose to get vaccinated, we’re getting into a real time crunch depending on what vaccine you use,” Cornford said.

Regardless of vaccination status, fire department employees are following OSHA mask rules in the station. The impact could loom large as Cornford emphasized his apprehension of losing fire and emergency services staff alongside potentially losing health care workers in the area.

“They’re educated in health care, they’re intelligent, healthy people that are making decisions that are best for them,” he said. “It’s a real tough spot to be in.”

Jerid Ployhar, vice president of the La Grande Professional Firefighters Local 924 Union, stated the vaccine mandate could greatly impact staffing and that unvaccinated employees are processing the personal choice and deciding on the next steps moving forward. For those looking to file an exemption, he recommended doing so in a timely manner to avoid any loss of staff.

“We don’t want to see the city of La Grande lose that service,” Ployhar said.

Police Chief Gary Bell stated the vaccine mandate will not impact local police officers unless they are a state employee. In that case, the vaccine mandate will apply.

La Grande City Manager Robert Strope noted city employees are not directly impacted by the mandates, but the potential loss of firefighters impacts the city. If there were to be a number of firefighters who resign or are let go because of the mandate rules, the city would look to fill the vacant positions as quickly as possible.

School districts could rely on subs

North Powder School District Superintendent Lance Dixon is not extremely worried about the possibility of not having enough teachers and staff when the mandate takes effect.

“A large percentage of our staff is vaccinated,” Dixon said.

The superintendent is holding off on making firm plans regarding what the school district will have in place for Oct. 18 because of the uncertainty of the moment. Dixon explained there are many unknowns about the vaccine mandate, including its legality, whether the unions the school district’s teachers and staff belong to will recognize it and how people will qualify for medical and religious exemptions.

He also said it is important to remember if COVID-19 rates drop significantly, school districts could regain local control and the state vaccination mandate would no longer be in effect.

Dixon said he hopes if the mandate does take effect it will not cost his district any staff members.

“We value all of our staff tremendously,” Dixon said.

The superintendent would like to have a group of substitute teachers ready to come in if needed, but said this would be challenging because he cannot ask prospective substitutes if they are vaccinated for COVID-19 because of privacy laws.

InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said all members of his staff who receive vaccination exemptions will be required to be tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis. This could involve educators in Union County since it is served by the InterMountain ESD.

Union School District Superintendent Carter Wells said he is asking all members of his staff to submit their vaccination status to him by Oct. 18. They will report on if they are vaccinated and if not, whether they have received exemption status for religious or health reasons.

Should some staff members not meet the vaccine mandate by the deadline, the Union School District will have to bring in substitute teachers.

“That is a big concern because we are forever short of substitute teachers,” Wells said.

He encourages anyone interested in working as a substitute to contact the Union School District.

Cove School District Superintendent Earl Pettit said the vaccine mandate is a nonissue at the moment. Pettit said he believes, based on anecdotal information, including from staff members who have voluntarily told him of their status, that close to 100% of his employees are vaccinated.

The superintendent also said neither of the unions representing his district’s teachers and classified staff have voiced opposition to the vaccination mandate.

“We have received no pushback from either of the unions,” Pettit said.

Scott Carpenter, the La Grande School District’s assistant superintendent, said the vaccine mandate’s rules have been presented to all of the school district’s employees. Carpenter said the school district is offering assistance to employees concerned the mandate could affect their employment status.

Imbler School District Superintendent Doug Hislop also said he hopes the mandate does not cost his district any of its staff.

Hislop noted if an employee does not meet the mandate either by being vaccinated or qualifying for an exemption, a third option could be considered. This would involve providing the staff member an opportunity to work at home so he or she would not be exposed to students or staff. Hislop said he knows of only one position in the Imbler School District for which it might be possible for the individual to work from home.

“We have a great staff, I am not interested in losing any of them,” Hislop said.

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Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer primarily covering the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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