OLYMPIA – State employees and private health care and long-term care employees must get vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18 as a condition of employment, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday.
With COVID-19 numbers surging due to the highly contagious delta variant, the state of Washington joined several other local, state and federal jurisdictions requiring employees to be fully vaccinated in the coming months.
At a news conference in Seattle, Inslee said the state was taking “decisive action against this COVID disease.”
“Today, this is a disease of those who have not been vaccinated,” Inslee said.
Spokane County has no intention of mandating vaccinations for its employees, spokesman Jared Webley said. At a Spokane County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, commissioners said they did not want to discuss mandatory vaccination.
“I have no desire to go that way,” Spokane County Commissioner Al French said.
Spokane hospitals operated by both Providence and MultiCare announced last week they would require vaccinations for all employees, and now more doctor’s offices, long-term care facilities and adult family homes will have to follow suit.
Washington’s requirement applies to state employees in the governor’s cabinet agencies, and at private health care and long-term care facilities. A full list of health care facilities will likely be included in the governor’s official proclamation to be released in the coming days. According to his office, that list will include facilities such as nursing homes, adult family homes, treatment facilities, as well as providers like dentists, optometrists and physical therapists.
For state employees, it does not apply to higher education, K-12, legislative, judicial employees or those who work for a separately elected official, although Inslee said he is strongly encouraging those branches to take similar action.
Inslee’s mandate also applies to private contractors with the state who work on state grounds.
There are about 60,000 state employees who will be affected by this mandate, although Inslee said he estimates about 70% of those are already vaccinated, following statewide trends. However, he said the numbers are disparate depending on geography and the particular agency, and in some, vaccination rates drop to below 50%.
Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said there are about 400,000 health care workers statewide that would fall under this mandate. Most of those are likely already vaccinated, although Shah did not have a specific number.
Statewide, nearly 70% of all residents who are 12 years old and older have received at least one dose, but locally those rates can look very different.
As of Aug. 6, 56% of Spokane County residents who are eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose.
If employees want to opt out of getting the vaccine, they must have a reasonable religious or medical exemption and can apply within their agency.
Employers must verify vaccination status of all employees, according to Inslee’s office.
State employees, regardless of their in-person or work-from-home status, must provide a proof of vaccination to keep their job. Private employers may choose to use a different process for verifying vaccination status.
State employees who refuse to get vaccinated will be subject to dismissal for “failing to meet the qualifications of the job,” according to the governor’s office. Health care employees must follow a set of safety protocols or they lose their license, Inslee said. Getting vaccinated for COVID-19 is now an additional required piece of that protocol.
There is no option for regular COVID-19 testing instead of a vaccination.
“We are past the point of thinking we can test our way to safety,” Inslee said.
The governor’s office said Inslee has the authority to implement these vaccination requirements through his emergency powers due to the pandemic.
Washington follows California, which took similar action last week in requiring its health care and long-term care workers to by fully vaccinated by the end of September. The Pentagon also announced Monday it will require members of the U.S. military to be vaccinated by Sept. 15.
Inslee announced the new mandate at a news conference at Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill in Seattle. Officials from the city of Seattle and King County joined him, announcing similar requirements for their employees.
Shah, the state’s secretary of health, said the decision to not get vaccinated is beginning to hurt others as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state rises.
“They are not just unvaccinated. They are unprotected, and they are a big reason why the state is once again seeing a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases,” Shah said.
In Washington, at least 94% of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in people 12 years and older occurred in unvaccinated people, according to data from the Department of Health released at the end of last month.
Hospitalizations statewide have been climbing in recent weeks, and Inslee said he did not want to see the state’s hospitals overrun. The hospital system is not shut down right now, he said, but it could be soon, if the state does not act.
Inslee followed the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance two weeks ago and encouraged everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks indoors and in schools. Inslee did not announce a mask mandate Monday, but a mandate could be an option in the future if COVID-19 rates continue to rise. In a news conference two weeks ago, Inslee said he did not want to reinstate a statewide mask mandate yet as many people who got vaccinated did so with the hopes they no longer had to wear a mask.
Similarly, Inslee said his reasoning for instituting a vaccination mandate is to avoid closing down the state’s economy again.
“There’s no reason why people who are vaccinated should lose their right to go to a restaurant,” Inslee said. “It’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s not acceptable.”
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, called Inslee’s mandate “a violation of Washingtonians’ civil liberties.” Padden, who said he has received a COVID-19 vaccination, said the decision should be personal and not mandated.
“The people of this state have met the governor’s 70-percent vaccination goal and have lived under his sporadic and shifting emergency orders for more than 16 months,” Padden said in a statement. “They don’t deserve to be bullied and threatened into putting something into their body that they don’t want.”
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, released a joint statement Monday applauding Inslee’s efforts. They said they strongly encourage their members and staff to get vaccinated and will be considering “possible additional COVID safety steps within the legislative branch as we approach the next legislative session.”
S-R reporter Colin Tiernan contributed to this report.
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