By Cary Rosenbaum of the CUJ
MISSION – Tribal employees belonging to four CTUIR entities have until Sept. 30 to get fully vaccinated.
Though the Tribe has held mass vaccination clinics and given a $50,000 grand prize for a fully vaccinated employee, an estimated 35 employees working at those entities are not vaccinated.
The directive was released Aug. 31 by Interim Executive Director Teara Farrow Ferman, who made the decision with Yellowhawk Tribal Health Centers and the Board of Trustees. The four Tribal entities are Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, the CTUIR Education Department, the Umatilla Tribal Fire Department and the CTUIR’s COVID-19 screeners.
“I’m certain the subject line of this memorandum has many people feeling anxious just as this past year and a half has given all of us some anxiety and stress while having to endure a historic flooding event and world-wide public health pandemic,” Farrow Ferman said. “The challenges and stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic are still with us and don’t seem to be going away any time soon. I know this has seriously and dramatically impacted our employee morale, our ability to socialize with family and friends, to live a normal life, and many other things. It has impacted everyone.”
The Board of Trustees sent out a public statement Sept. 1 regarding the matter.
“To lead by example, all CTUIR Board of Trustee members and officers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This Order comes after careful consideration of our ability to carry out tribal government and health care services to the community, and the continued hardship on the CTUIR. “Currently hospitals in the state of Oregon and the surrounding counties are reaching capacity,” the BOT continued in the statement. “Newly infected people suffering from symptoms of COVID-19 that require respiratory therapy are being transported to other states for COVID-19 emergency care. We are facing shortages in medical care capacities, equipment and protections.”
“The medical and health care fields are reporting service disruptions and delays that result from employees required to quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19 exposures,” the BOT statement continued. “These services are vital to the CTUIR community and we must preserve the CTUIR capacity to provide such services. In the meantime our children, elders and tribal families continue to become infected with COVID-19 and its Delta variant.
“The spread of COVID-19 remains a hardship on our tribal way of life and to our tribal people and employees. Statistically, tribal people are at a disproportionate higher risk of serious illness and death when infected with COVID-19. This summer, our community suffered a substantial increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths,” the BOT statement continued. “As a community, we need to remain vigilant in our fight against COVID-19 in order to be as safe as possible. Please continue to wear your mask, wash your hands and social distance to the best of your ability. Stay safe and healthy.”
The decision was based, in part, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the memo states and the CTUIR having many Tribal members and employees who are considered high risk.
“The Board of Trustees has made the very hard decision requiring certain employees to become fully vaccinated,” the memo states. “The measures are aimed to ensure the safe continuation of critical and essential healthcare, education and emergency response services to the Tribal community.”
The memo does not make clear what will happen to those who do not cooperate with the order. But it does state “the order does allow for reasonable accommodation of a medical disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance that documents an employee should not be vaccinated.”
“Such a request,” the memo states, “is not guaranteed to be granted and must follow our process that addresses employee claims and documentation.”
If an accommodation request is made, it will be reviewed in accordance with applicable law, the memo states. The requests should be made to Human Resources Director Kathryn Burke.
Employees in those four entities who did not receive their vaccine through the Tribe will need to provide an official vaccination record to Human Resources Benefits Coordinator Marlene Hale by Sept. 30.
The memo notes CTUIR employees remain eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations at Yellowhawk by appointment on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Their phone number is 541-240-8733.
Yellowhawk is approaching 1,700 vaccinated individuals as the Tribe braces for a surge in cases.
It “will likely become worse after upcoming large local events,” the memo stated, possibly alluding to the Pendleton Round-Up in September. “Additionally, this surge is causing a supply demand on necessary medical supplies and resources which can effect adequate medical access and treatment of COVID-19 in our county and region.”
Farrow Ferman thanked employees for their continued dedication and service to the Tribal membership and community of the CTUIR.
“There were probably times that you felt or continue to feel unappreciated for the work you are doing,” she wrote. “I want you to know that your work is not and has not gone unnoticed. It is deeply appreciated and respected. Without you, our Tribal government operations and services wouldn’t be able to continue.
“Staff quickly adapted to remote work and were highly productive,” she added. “It is amazing how well everyone adapted and how productive and successful we continue to be. We are all members of this team we call the CTUIR Tribal government and each of you contribute to the team.”