“Whatever hardships Plaintiffs face in choosing between accepting vaccination or leaving their employment are substantially outweighed by the interests and needs of the State of Oregon and her people,” Aiken wrote.
Aiken is the second federal judge in the state this week to block an emergency motion from unvaccinated workers attempting to avoid the immunization requirement put in place by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D). It is the sixth time that a federal or state court judge in Oregon has denied an effort to stop the vaccine mandate.
Like her colleague U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who ruled in a separate case Monday, Aiken decided that the seven unvaccinated workers failed to show that they would suffer irreparable harm from the mandate.
“The benefits inherent in requiring all healthcare personnel, school staff, and state executive employees to be vaccinated are clear and obvious, both in terms of protecting the newly vaccinated workers themselves and, of at least equal importance, in protecting the people around them,” she wrote.
The judge’s opinion comes as thousands of state workers must be fully vaccinated under the mandate. Though the requirement went into effect Monday for about 5,000 workers, the deadline for most of the roughly 43,000 executive branch employees has been pushed back to Nov. 30 after negotiations with public employee unions, the Oregonian reported.
Oregon, like much of the country, has seen its coronavirus cases declining in recent weeks. The state is averaging 1,146 new daily infections, a drop of 8 percent compared to the previous seven-day period, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. Hospitalizations are also on decline.
More than 62 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, which is higher than the national rate of 57.1 percent.
The seven unvaccinated workers named in the opinion — Joshua Williams, Jennifer Lewis, Michael Miller, Phillip Kearney, Jay Hicks, Janna Cochran and Julie Ann Suderman — all had covid-19 and recovered. They hold a variety of jobs, ranging from an orthodontist office manager to an assistant special agent for the Oregon Department of Justice.
They filed a lawsuit last month arguing for the state to carve out an exception for them, and people like them, who have some degree of natural immunity after they were infected with the virus. Attorney Rebekah Millard wrote in the plaintiffs’ motion that the state forcing previously infected workers to get vaccinated violated their “privacy, bodily autonomy, and personal liberty.” The group contended that the governor’s mandate forced workers like them “who have robust natural immunity, to choose between their health, their personal autonomy, and their careers.”
While the employees argued that getting vaccinated “would involve more risks than benefits” and they were “exceedingly unlikely” to spread the virus to others, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month found that unvaccinated people who recovered from covid are more than twice as likely to catch the coronavirus again compared to fully vaccinated people who were previously infected.
Melissa Sutton, the medical director of respiratory viral pathogens for the Oregon Health Authority, supported the CDC’s findings in sworn testimony. Sutton wrote to Aiken that immunity after infection is “not as durable or reliable as the protection” provided by the vaccines. She added that the durability of such immunity varies widely between individuals compared to protection from immunization.
Though Millard argued this week that Oregon did not acknowledge “a fundamental right to bodily integrity,” the state’s attorney, Christina Beatty-Walters, pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that community vaccination does not violate the Constitution.
“They hinge their whole case here on the existence of a fundamental right, but there isn’t support for the existence of such a right. In fact, all of the case law goes the other way and supports the state in this case,” she said to the Register-Guard. “Many, many courts … have concluded that there’s no fundamental right to refuse a vaccination required by state or local officials.”
In her opinion, Aiken noted that most of the seven workers who brought the lawsuit against the state either have already received an exception to the mandate or are awaiting a decision on an exemption request. Two did not apply for an exemption and one had theirs denied, Aiken wrote.