Oregon teachers, health care workers are staring down a deadline to get vaccinated
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In Oregon, some people are staring down a deadline to get vaccinated. The governor ordered health care workers, educators and state employees to be fully vaccinated by mid-October. In some rural parts of the state, local authorities say the mandate is causing problems. From Malheur County, Katia Riddle reports.
KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: Even before the pandemic, this southeastern corner of Oregon was thin on emergency services. Now some say the vaccine mandates could devastate their small workforce.
SAMANTHA CHAMBERLAIN: We were just counting today. There are only, like, 10 of us that are vaccinated.
RIDDLE: Samantha Chamberlain supervises EMT ambulance drivers. She works out of the small town of Vale.
CHAMBERLAIN: That's 17 people that we lose.
RIDDLE: More than half of your staff.
CHAMBERLAIN: More than half of our staff, yes.
RIDDLE: The order threatens debilitating fines for employers with unvaccinated health care workers, even if they're volunteers, like most of this team. EMT Matthew Kabush commutes an hour each way to his shift at the small station that houses fire and ambulance services.
MATTHEW KABUSH: My dad's a firefighter. My - two of - my two brothers are firefighters.
RIDDLE: His mom was also in the business. Volunteer emergency services are commonly a family affair around here. Kabush says many feel a responsibility to protect their rural community. And thousands of people who live and pass through here are dependent on them to cover a lot of ground - 2,500 square miles.
KABUSH: And down there at the 78 junction, that's 90, almost 100 road miles.
RIDDLE: Kabush and Chamberlain, who are both vaccinated, look together at a map of their territory.
CHAMBERLAIN: Actually, yeah, I think pretty...
KABUSH: If you include the off-road curves.
RIDDLE: With truck drivers traveling through regularly over icy stretches, EMTs here, like Chamberlain, have responded to some horrific accidents. And if the vaccine mandates handicap them, county officials warn lifesaving measures could be delayed by hours.
CHAMBERLAIN: I think what makes me the most upset is the fact that my community is going to suffer, and there's nothing I can do about it.
RIDDLE: Suffer as the county could lose essential emergency workers.
MARTA STODDART: So we're not going to get the shot. We're just not going to do it.
RIDDLE: Marta Stoddart is a volunteer EMT in an even more remote part of the county called Jordan Valley. She and her husband are ranchers when they're not driving ambulances. She'd rather let the county cope without emergency services than get vaccinated.
STODDART: Then I guess we won't have our service down there, and the county will have to figure stuff out.
RIDDLE: Stoddart worries the potential side effects of the vaccine are so serious that getting the shot could mean risking her life.
STODDART: If something happens to us, what's going to happen to our bills? What's going to happen to our kids?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is your vaccination card.
RIDDLE: At the Malheur County Fairgrounds, cars roll in past the horse stables - one line for testing, one for vaccination. Someone who says the mandate did bring him in, reluctantly, is Matthew McClain.
MATTHEW MCCLAIN: A lot of people I've talked to aren't so much opposed to the vaccine. They're opposed to the mandate.
RIDDLE: McClain works for the Department of Corrections. He's here getting the shot with his wife. They were both going to do it eventually, but he's still irritated.
MCCLAIN: Being told that you have to put something in your body is kind of a shocking thing to a lot of people.
RIDDLE: Some facilities have reported a recent increase in vaccination rates, with staff scared of losing their jobs. According to the state, Malheur County has only about 50% of health care workers vaccinated.
SARAH POE: There are people who are going to say no to a vaccine and be at risk because of the mandates.
RIDDLE: Sarah Poe is the director of public health in Malheur County. She says in this conservative part of the state, when an order comes down from a liberal governor, people have a knee-jerk reaction to it.
POE: Really, I think that the politicians need to stay out of it.
RIDDLE: Poe says local public health officials who know the community are more compassionate and effective ambassadors for vaccination.
For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in the Malheur County, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.