Editor’s note: This editorial originally appeared in the East Oregonian.

The news that more than half of Oregon’s state employees will get an extra six weeks to get inoculated against COVID-19 was welcome, but the question of what happens after the deadline remains unanswered.

Gov. Kate Brown pushed back the earlier October deadline and set Nov. 30 as the final date state employees must be vaccinated. The decision affects more than 20,000 workers.

Yet many people — including many in the health care industry — have no intention of getting vaccinated for a variety of reasons, and that could mean the state will face a new crisis on top of an already spiraling COVID-19 surge.

Now, more than a quarter of all health care workers in Umatilla, Union and Morrow counties remain unvaccinated. All those workers would be fired or forced to resign under the governor’s vaccination mandate.

Dr. Jon Hitzman, Umatilla County’s public health officer, said last week the situation is like a game of chicken.

“Who’s going to relent first?” he asked.

That we’ve reached this point in what is a once-a-century pandemic is beyond troubling. It is sad.

Yet, here we are. If neither side budges — and so far, the governor hasn’t indicated she plans to back down — then the small towns scattered across Eastern Oregon will encounter a new medical emergency because there will be fewer qualified people to attend to those with the virus and people injured or in need of serious care.

In a sense, the area’s hospitals are caught in the middle — a not uncommon situation since the pandemic began — as they must comply with the state mandate but, at the same time, need qualified people to operate effectively.

Ultimately, much of the final consequence of this situation is out of the hands of residents of the region. We can sympathize with health care workers, or we can feel they should all follow the governor’s mandate but, in the end, it will be an individual decision thousands of workers have to make.

So, the real question is what measures and fail-safes are elected leaders across the region proposing to overcome a sudden loss of thousands of qualified workers? What will be the state’s role if the region faces a mass exodus of health care workers? Have local elected leaders reached out to state leaders about the issue? If so, what plan is in the works?

We can’t afford to wait around and see who blinks first. We need actionable plans in case we lose a great number of workers.

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