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The vaccine mandate deadline is here, but its full effects are still unknown

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 18, 2021

Spokane Valley Fire Department paramedic Brett Gombasy administers a shot as local firefighters and first responders started getting their COVID-19 vaccinations on Jan. 4, 2021, at a drive-thru vaccination clinic put on by the Spokane Regional Health District at the Spokane Fire Training Center Field House.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane Valley Fire Department paramedic Brett Gombasy administers a shot as local firefighters and first responders started getting their COVID-19 vaccinations on Jan. 4, 2021, at a drive-thru vaccination clinic put on by the Spokane Regional Health District at the Spokane Fire Training Center Field House. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

After months of protests and lawsuits, state workers, health care employees and educators who did not show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or receive an exemption by the end of the day Monday will likely be out of a job Tuesday.

The full effects of the mandate on state agencies, schools and hospitals, however, are still unknown.

About 90% of state workers had been verified as fully vaccinated as of Oct. 7, according to the latest statewide data. That left nearly 5,000 workers who at the time had not verified their vaccination status nor received an exemption.

Spokesmen at state agencies have said the number of fully vaccinated employees is likely higher as more people have submitted vaccine records in the last two weeks. The state will release updated numbers next week.

State workers who were denied an accommodation or had not yet received a second dose can take leave to finish their vaccination process and keep their job, assuming it has not been filled by the time they return.

As of Oct. 7, more than 5,000 religious and medical exemptions had been approved by state agencies. Only 1,563 of those had been accommodated. An accommodation could mean working a shift in which a worker does not interact with other employees or the public, or it could mean extra masking or social distancing. Many state agencies, however, found that those with public-facing jobs could not be accommodated in their current role, leaving many to either switch jobs, leave their position or get the vaccine.

Judge denies last-minute effort to halt mandate

A final effort from about 600 state troopers, corrections workers and others to stop the governor’s requirement was halted Monday by a Thurston County Superior Court judge who upheld Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate.

In a ruling from the bench, Judge Carol Murphy ruled the plaintiffs were not likely to prevail on the merits of their case. The governor had the legal authority to issue the ruling, Murphy said, and the plaintiffs in this case failed to prove there was a likelihood of “irreparable harm.”

It’s not surprising there are people in Washington do not agree with the governor’s policy action or think a different response was appropriate, Murphy said.

“Those questions are not before the court,” she said.

The State Patrol and Department of Corrections were among the agencies with the lowest vaccination rates, but rates have gone up in recent weeks.

As of Oct. 7, the Washington State Patrol had about an 88% vaccination rate. Of its 443 exemption requests, only 35 had received accommodations. Within the Department of Corrections, Secretary Cheryl Strange told reporters Friday that 91% of staff had turned in vaccination cards as of Thursday evening, although that number varies according to facility. Across the department, about 500 people were at risk of losing their jobs unless they turned in proof of vaccination or received an accommodation by Monday.

In Monday’s court hearing, attorney Nathan Arnold argued the governor’s mandate was “religious gerrymandering.” Arnold, representing state workers in the case, said agencies which approved exemptions but not accommodations allowed them to favor the secular over the religious.

Arnold specifically cited the Spokane Fire Department in his argument. The city of Spokane had decided it would not accommodate any Spokane firefighters because it “presented an undue hardship and too great of a risk to the public and the other Spokane Fire Department employees.” Other neighboring fire departments are accommodating their employees by allowing double-masking or testing, Arnold said.

In her ruling, Murphy said although some individual instances of how the mandate is being followed are “quite concerning,” they are not fully developed, and the full effects of them are not yet known. Some individual instances, however, may be litigated individually in the future.

In his argument, Inslee’s attorney, Zach Pekelis Jones, said the governor did not issue the mandate lightly or prematurely. He had the authority under his state of emergency and issued a prohibitory proclamation, which he argued is not a requirement but instead conditional.

No one is forcing anyone to get vaccinated, Jones said. They just must do so to keep their current job.

Arnold said the people who are unvaccinated now will remain unvaccinated tomorrow.

“Nothing is going to change at midnight,” he said. “We will just have less nurses and less firefighters.”

Spokane firefighters drop exemption requests

The city of Spokane refused to make accommodations for the 52 of its 318 fire department employees subject to the mandate, claiming that doing so would be logistically impossible, costly, unsafe and a potential liability.

Of the 52 Spokane firefighters who received an exemption, 15 have since withdrawn it, city spokesman Brian Coddington said Monday. An additional 15 have told the city they are now planning to get vaccinated, and the city is allowing firefighters to use time off until they are fully vaccinated.

The remainder have signaled they will take one of the options the city has offered, such as being laid off or retiring.

Several firefighters filed a lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Spokane asking a judge to issue a temporary restraining order against the city and prevent it from laying off unvaccinated employees.

On Monday, Judge Thomas O. Rice found that the firefighters’ attorney had not properly filed proof that the defendants had been properly served notice of the filing.

“Considering the timing of the defendants’ actions and the delay in filing this case, defendants are entitled to proper notice and an opportunity to respond,” Rice ruled.

In a separate order, Rice granted a motion to intervene filed by Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The two were not named in the initial lawsuit but have a vested interest in its outcome, as Inslee ordered the statewide vaccine mandate.

Most hospital staff members comply with mandate

The majority of hospital staff members in the state have complied with the governor’s vaccine mandate, according to a survey released earlier this month by the Washington State Hospital Association.

The survey found that 2% to 5% of hospital staff in the state might leave due to the mandate. Even in the last week , more hospital staff members began the vaccination process or turned in their vaccine cards, however.

The Washington State Hospital Association plans to re-survey hospitals next week or the first week of November to see how many employees each hospital lost to the vaccine mandate.

At some hospitals, staff who have begun the vaccination process but are not considered fully vaccinated might be placed on leave until they are fully vaccinated and return to work.

Rural hospitals in Eastern Washington are going to be most impacted by the statewide vaccine mandate, Casse Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said on Monday.

“We will see curtailing of services; there will be caps on admissions in some rural hospitals and closing down of some service lines potentially,” Sauer said. “And people might have to wait longer for elective or outpatient services.”

Sauer said all hospitals are looking for staff. She said the mandate will also impact long-term care facilities and emergency medical services in places where vaccination rates are lower than in hospitals. She said short staffing in those sectors could lead to “cascading impacts” for hospitals and the health care system as whole.

Laurel Demkovich and Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story 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.

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