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Monday is the last day to comply with Washington’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state and health workers – here’s what might happen after that

In this Sept. 21, 2021 photo, Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center nurse Maggie Bass, right, injects a COVID-19 vaccine into an arm in Jackson, Miss. Washington's vaccine mandate for state and health workers takes effect later this month, and some of its impacts remain uncertain.   (Rogelio V. Solis)

Washington’s vaccine mandate for state and health care workers is about to take effect, but the aftermath will vary depending on where you work.

Monday is the last day to get vaccinated in order to comply with the governor’s vaccine mandate, which requires state employees and health care workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

Workers who receive the Johnson & Johnson single-dose shot on Monday will reach the two-week post-vaccination mark and therefore be considered fully vaccinated just by the deadline.

How the vaccine mandate will impact your job largely varies, however.

Many health care workers in Washington are represented by unions, which attempted to bargain the impact of the governor’s mandate with employers.

Some unions have negotiated paid time off or a buffer period following the Oct. 18 deadline. Some hospitals have not been willing to bargain, however, so how quickly the impacts of the mandate are felt might depend on the employer .

Nurses at Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital who do not have a verified exemption or are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 will be removed from the schedule but will not be separated from employment until Nov. 18, according to the memorandum of understanding agreed to between the Washington State Nurses Association and the hospitals.

Nurses will remain eligible for rehire if they get fully vaccinated or have an exemption approved during that time.

Exemptions are considered for nurses with certain medical issues, as well as sincerely held religious beliefs. Hospitals will provide reasonable accommodation on a case-by-case basis if a nurse’s exemption has been approved, which could include testing plans, more personal protective equipment or an alternative work assignment.

SEIU1199 NW health care union represents service and technical workers at MultiCare Deaconess Hospital, as well as nurses, service and technical workers at Valley Hospital. As of Friday, both bargaining units had not signed memorandums of understanding regarding the vaccine mandate.

Impacts on industries remain uncertain

There is no data available from the state that shows how many workers will leave the health care workforce as a result of the mandate.

In the past month, vaccination rates have increased statewide by 25%, Department of Health officials said last week.

Similarly, Providence Spokane hospitals have seen an uptick in staff members getting vaccinated. Providence has not released staff vaccination rates, though.

“Across the board when we look at all departments, we’re seeing more and more people become vaccinated, which is phenomenal to see from the standpoint of a physician to reduce their risk of becoming very, very ill,” Dr. Dan Getz, chief medical officer at Providence Spokane, told reporters Friday.

He thinks the mandate, as well as the current COVID risk with the delta variant, have led to an uptick in employees seeking vaccines.

The Washington State Hospital Association plans to collect hospital vaccination rates in the coming weeks and give that information to the state.

Staffing challenges in the health care sector were a problem in Washington state before the pandemic, especially in nursing.

The stress of the pandemic added insult to injury, with more health care workers leaving the industry as a result of pandemic fatigue and burnout.

Now, in the worst COVID wave the state has seen, health care workers will have to prove they have been vaccinated or have an approved exemption to continue working in hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities statewide.

The governor believes that the mandate will not result in a large loss of personnel across the state.

“We think the vast, vast majority of health care professionals, educators and state employees will stay committed to their service,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in Spokane on Wednesday.

State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said it was hard to know how the mandate would impact staffing statewide.

Some workers unions have bargained for flexibility on the Oct. 18 deadline.

If workers are not vaccinated by then but are awaiting a decision on their accommodation or exemption, they can take paid or unpaid leave for up to a month to receive their decision or get vaccinated, if needed.

A spokesman from the governor’s office said some agencies began issuing separation notices on Friday but will rescind them if a worker’s vaccination status is verified before Oct. 18.

The state is not tracking separation notices, but will track how many people actually leave their jobs after Oct. 18.

As of Sept. 20, about 68% of state workers had verified vaccination status, according to data from the Office of Financial Management.

About 9% of state workers have applied for a vaccine accommodation, most of which are religious exemptions.

According to OFM, 5,778 medical and religious exemption requests have been submitted, although only 788 have received accommodations.

S-R Reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.