Washington state employees, health care workers must be vaccinated against COVID

The state will not allow testing in lieu of vaccination


By Jim Brunner
The Seattle Times
        
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Citing a spike in COVID-19 infections driven by unvaccinated people, Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday issued a sweeping order requiring most state employees — along with hundreds of thousands of health care workers — to get vaccinated soon or lose their jobs.

State workers will have until Oct. 18 to get fully vaccinated and show proof, or face "nondisciplinary dismissal" for failure to meet job requirements, according to Inslee's office. Contractors who work on state job sites also must comply.

Employees will be allowed to seek exemptions for religious or medical reasons, but political or philosophical objections won't be honored.

Wash. Gov Jay Inslee is seen with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan at a news conference. Durkan announced a similar vaccine mandate for city and county employees.
Wash. Gov Jay Inslee is seen with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan at a news conference. Durkan announced a similar vaccine mandate for city and county employees. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine also announced similar mandates for city and county employees, standing with Inslee at an afternoon news conference at Kaiser Permanente's Capitol Hill campus in Seattle.

The unified front among state and local officials means the new mandates will apply to public employees ranging from Seattle cops to state social workers to county jail employees and WSDOT road crews.

The announcement comes amid a surge in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.

"We have essentially what is a new virus at our throats — a new virus that is twice as transmittable and is causing an explosion of this dread disease in the state of Washington," Inslee said at the news conference.

The announcements by Inslee and local officials added to a growing number of major government and private employers imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Microsoft last week said it will require vaccinations for employees who want to return to the office. The Pentagon announced Monday that members of the U.S. military will have to get vaccinated starting next month.

The mandate for Washington state workers applies to agencies under the governor's control, but not K-12 schools or colleges and universities — though some already have announced their own requirements.

About 60,000 state government employees will fall under the new vaccine mandate, Inslee said. The vaccines will be required regardless of whether employees have returned to in-person worksites to or are still working from home.

The requirement covers state workforces that report to the governor, including the largest agencies, such as the Departments of Transportation, Corrections and Social and Health Services, and the State Patrol.

As he has for months, Inslee on Monday alternately pleaded and lectured vaccine-hesitant Washingtonians. He said he understood initial fears about the new vaccines, but said hospitals are now at risk of becoming overwhelmed due to severe infections among unvaccinated people, many of whom are hearing misinformation.

"People have heard a lot of mistruths about this. They've heard there is a microchip in the virus. That's a myth," he said.

Republican legislative leaders quickly blasted Inslee's new order.

In a joint statement, Senate Minority Leader John Braun of Centralia and House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm said they have been vaccinated and have strongly encouraged others to get their shots.

"But getting the vaccine is a personal health care choice and should not be mandated by any level of government," said Braun and Wilcox. "Threatening to terminate someone's job if they don't comply with this requirement is heavy-handed and wrong."

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, described the requirement as a way for state workers to be "bullied and threatened" and predicted the order would result in more rejection of vaccines.

Some public-employee union representatives also voiced concerns, including those representing police, jail and correctional officers.

Dennis Folk, president of the King County Corrections Guild, which represents staff at the county's jails, estimated that only 40% to 50% of his union's members are vaccinated.

"I've been getting text message and emails and phone messages all day today — 'are they really going to fire me,'" Folk said. He said his union has demanded to bargain over the mandate and will seek concessions like severance for those who may be fired, and paid time off to get vaccinated.

Inslee's decision "raises serious concerns" for union members, said John Scearcy, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 117, which represents state corrections staffers. He said the union will demand to bargain over issues including impacts on vaccinated staff if they have to work mandatory overtime to fill gaps for terminated workers.

The Seattle Police Officers Guild, in a statement, said Durkan didn't consult the union before ordering her vaccine mandate, and suggested it could cause more officers to quit, exacerbating an already dire staffing crisis.

Some details of the state's new mandate remained unclear Monday, including exactly how religious exemptions would be handled and how swiftly employees might face termination for refusal to comply.

Inslee said he is confident the state has the authority to impose the vaccination requirement as a condition of employment, but acknowledged "we do have an obligation to bargain the impacts of that decision." He said he believes the vast majority of affected employees already have, or will, comply.

King County has about 13,500 executive branch employees who will be subject to the mandate, a spokesperson for Constantine said. The city of Seattle has about 12,000 employees potentially subject to the mandate.

Durkan called vaccines "the road to having a normal life," noting Seattle's success in inoculating people — the city was the first major one in the U.S. to reach a milestone of fully vaccinating 70% of eligible residents.

The governor's order, made under his emergency powers, will also apply to roughly 400,000 private-sector health care workers, officials said. That includes nursing homes, adult family homes, assisted living and residential treatment facilities.

Some major medical employers, including hospitals, have already announced they'll require physicians and other employees to get vaccinated. Last week, Virginia Mason Franciscan Health and Swedish Health Services announced such requirements, as did Kaiser Permanente.

Leaders of two organizations that represent nursing homes and assisted-living facilities on Monday said they favor the measure, noting that an across-the-board mandate prevents a facility with a vaccine requirement from losing workers to a facility that doesn't.

While vaccinated staff may still get the coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness it causes, their symptoms would likely be less severe and they could return to work faster than an unvaccinated staff member, said Deb Murphy, CEO and president of LeadingAge Washington, which represents nonprofit nursing homes.

Robin Dale, president of the Washington Health Care Association, cautioned that the mandate could potentially impact staffing in a work force that has spent the pandemic overworked and underpaid. However, he said WHCA members who are larger employers that already implemented vaccine requirements reported having a smaller staff loss than they expected.

"The impact on staffing has been and will continue to be an issue," he said.

Bellevue-based Aegis Living, which operates 38 senior living sites in Washington, Nevada and California, began requiring vaccinations for all staff in July. Eliseo, formerly known as Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community, announced last week all employees would need to be vaccinated by Oct. 31. In a letter to residents and staff explaining the reasons for the requirement, president and CEO Kevin McFeely wrote that the site lost 19 residents to COVID-19 last year.

Long-term care facilities absorbed some of the deadliest blows of the pandemic, accounting for 4% of total cases but 44% of total deaths in Washington.

Across Washington state, 67% of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated, compared to 82% of nursing home residents as of July 25, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which tracks nursing home numbers but not other long-term care facilities.

The mandate will not apply to employees reporting to the state's eight other statewide independently elected officials — such as the secretary of state or the commissioner of public lands, who oversees the Department of Natural Resources.

California and New York last week announced requirements for government workers to get vaccinated or else submit to weekly tests to make sure they don't have the virus.

But Washington will not allow testing in lieu of vaccination. Despite interest in that option from labor organizations and other groups, Inslee's rejected the approach, saying it had been shown to be inadequate at health care facilities that have tried it.

At the state Department of Corrections, for example, employees have been tested regularly, but Inslee said he recently attended the memorial for a 42-year-old correctional officer who died after contracting the virus.

Washington has lagged behind the federal Bureau of Prisons and at least 12 other states in the number of corrections officers who have gotten at least one shot, according to data compiled by the University of California Los Angeles School of Law.

While there is some uncertainty in that data due to medical privacy issues, DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange expressed concern over those numbers during a recent interview. "We're low, no matter how you slice it," she said.

Health officials have said disease modeling shows the delta variant likely accounts for more than 90% of new coronavirus cases in Washington. About 53% of Washington residents had been fully vaccinated as of last week, including nearly 64% of those 16 and older.

At the Monday news conference, Public Health — Seattle & King County Health Officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin pointed to an array of medical professional and public-health organizations that have supported vaccine mandates for health care workers to protect vulnerable patients.

"No one should have to worry about getting COVID-19 from a health care provider, period," he said.
   
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