Kaiser Permanente latest health system in Portland area to place unvaccinated employees on administrative leave

Major health systems in the Portland area say COVID-19 vaccination rates among employees remain below 100% but have increased markedly since instituting internal deadlines to meet Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccination mandate for health care workers that kicks in Oct. 18.

Deadlines vary among employers for submitting proof of vaccination or having a medical or religious exemption approved. But the situation is already leading to significant numbers of workers being put on administrative leave and facing possible termination if they choose not to comply.

While vaccination rates among many medical professions are higher than in Oregon as a whole, the looming state deadline and potential to lose more employees could exacerbate capacity issues in a wider health system that is already struggling with long term staffing shortages compounded by the ongoing pandemic surge and overworked employees.

Legacy Health moved fastest to identify and remove unvaccinated workers, announcing last week that nearly 800 in Oregon and Washington had been placed on administrative leave because they failed to meet a Sept. 30 vaccination deadline. Legacy has about 14,000 employees and already some of those placed on leave have been vaccinated and will be eligible to return to work.

Kaiser Permanente this week became the latest to announce it is keeping unvaccinated employees from coming into work.

The health system has placed about 190 local employees on administrative leave, or about 1.5% of the active workforce, according to Mike Foley, a regional spokesman. They were placed on leave because they weren’t vaccinated and had not sought an exemption.

Kaiser Permanente has 11,100 employees and 1,300 physicians in hospitals and clinics stretching from Longview, Washington, to Eugene. Some 89% of employees and 99% of physicians, who are employees of a separate corporation, have been vaccinated, Foley said. That leaves about 1,200 employees and 13 physicians who have yet to get their shots.

About 1,000 of those employees have applied for an exception, Foley said in an email Tuesday. Employees who submitted that paperwork on time have been granted a provisional approval while the requests are being reviewed. That process may extend beyond the Oct. 18 state deadline.

Since the health system announced its vaccination requirement Aug. 2, its overall vaccination rate among employees has increased by 10 percentage points regionally and that number continues to grow, Foley said. Kaiser has said it plans to terminate employees nationwide if they are unvaccinated by Dec. 1.

Monday also marked the deadline for Providence Health & Services’ 23,000 caregivers to receive a second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or a single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and submit proof of vaccination. But Providence won’t put employees on administrative leave until Oct. 18.

Providence spokesman Gary Walker said 90% of workers have been vaccinated and the remaining 2,300 could still be in the process of submitting their status, have not indicated their decision, or have submitted a request for an exception. He said the health system was working to minimize the impact of the mandate.

“Oct. 18 is the last day for caregivers to be fully vaccinated or submit a completed exception request,” he said in an email. “If they have not done so, they will not be eligible to work. They will be removed from the schedule, placed on unpaid leave and may be subject to termination for continued non-compliance with public health orders and their facility policy.”

Oregon Health & Science University, meanwhile, has placed a vaccination requirement on some 22,000 employees, students and volunteers. Those who aren’t fully vaccinated or haven’t received a medical or religious exception by Oct. 18 will be placed on leave and could face termination, according to a statement on OHSU’s website.

As of Sept. 30, 93% of OHSU’s employees, students and volunteers were fully vaccinated, 5% were partially vaccinated and 1.1% were unvaccinated, OHSU spokeswoman Tamara Hargens-Bradley said in an email. Some of the unvaccinated are newly hired employees and students who have yet to start at OHSU, she said.

As of a Sept. 20 deadline, employees, students and volunteers had submitted 48 medical and 465 religious requests for exceptions. The health system anticipates granting few religious exceptions, and it plans to put those who are granted waivers into roles that, to the extent possible, don’t involve in-person patient contact.

“Those who remain unvaccinated or have not requested a medical or religious exception will be placed on leave or laid off effective 11.59 p.m. Monday, Oct. 18, 2021,” Hargens-Bradley said. “We won’t know how many members are on leave or laid off until the week of Oct. 18.”

Oregon’s summer COVID surge resulted in record hospitalizations statewide, at nearly 1,200 to begin September. By Tuesday that number had fallen to 733 people with COVID hospitalized, although it could be winter before Oregon recedes to pre-surge levels.

Like other hospital systems, OHSU has periodically limited nonemergency procedures and surgeries in response to surges of patients severely ill and hospitalized with COVID-19.

“At this time, we continue to see high demand for hospital admissions from emergency rooms, surgeries, clinics and transfers from across the state that exceed our staffed bed capacity,” Mattias Merkel, OHSU’s senior associate chief medical officer, said in an emailed statement. “We expect to continue to limit scheduled procedures, surgeries and hospital admissions every day, but at variable degrees.”

To see more data and trends, visit https://projects.oregonlive.com/coronavirus.

— Ted Sickinger; [email protected]; 503-221-8505; @tedsickinger