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Seattle, King County will no longer require COVID vaccinations for employees

Feb. 6, 2023 Updated Tue., Feb. 7, 2023 at 5:57 p.m.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, pictured here, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced Monday that county and city employees will no longer be required to show proof they received the COVID vaccine.  (Karen Ducey/Seattle Times)
King County Executive Dow Constantine, pictured here, and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced Monday that county and city employees will no longer be required to show proof they received the COVID vaccine. (Karen Ducey/Seattle Times)
By Sarah Grace Taylor Seattle Times

King County and the city of Seattle will no longer require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for employees, ending one of the final pandemic protections at either level of government.

In a joint announcement Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that they would end the mandate, originally established in October 2021, citing guidance from Public Health – Seattle and King County.

“Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, King County’s policy has been to follow the science, listen to the experts, and protect life and health,” Constantine said in a news release. “Establishing a vaccine mandate for employees and contractors was critical to keeping employees and the public safe, and keeping services flowing. Today our experts advise that immunity has reached a level that allows these requirements to be relaxed.”

The release cites the county’s “high level of vaccination booster uptake and lower levels of community spread,” and added that hospitalizations because of COVID remain at a “safe level.” Nearly 90% of King County residents ages 18-64 have received their primary vaccination series, according to the release. However, most have not received an updated booster, the release said.

“While the significant benefits of vaccination have not changed, the acute threat to our community and healthcare system has decreased,” Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County said in a release Monday. “Therefore, it makes sense that vaccination is highly recommended but no longer required for King County and Seattle staff and contractors outside of health care settings.”

Constantine also rescinded the county’s emergency proclamation on Monday, ending pandemic emergency protections that had been in place since March 2020. A spokesperson for the county said Monday there were no “significant operational impacts” from rescinding the emergency proclamation.

Constantine reissued an existing order pertaining to Metro service reductions, which will remain in effect, and said that booking restrictions at King County correctional facilities – adopted at the start of the pandemic – will remain in place because of staffing shortages.

The announcement came the same day New York City Mayor Eric Adams said he would lift the vaccine requirement for its workers later this month.

After Seattle and King County officials implemented the vaccine requirement in October 2021, about 2% of the county’s 15,000 employees and nearly 1% of the city’s roughly 11,000 employees were not in compliance with the mandate, resulting in temporary leaves, appeals or terminations.

In total, 290 county employees were terminated because of the vaccine mandate, including 103 in King County Metro and 51 in the Sheriff’s Office.

The city’s terminations, retirements and leaves related to the vaccine mandate disproportionately impacted a few departments, including the already staff-burdened Seattle police and fire departments.

A Police Department spokesperson said the department was working with the city’s Human Resources Department and City Attorney to “resolve a variety of questions” about the announcement, and a spokesperson for the Fire Department deferred to the mayor’s office when asked if they would recruit separated employees.

A spokesperson from Harrell’s office said Monday that – in total – 174 employees had been “separated” from the city as a result of the mandate, and that those employees are allowed to apply for vacant positions at the city. The spokesperson did not answer when asked whether the city would specifically recruit those former employees.

Late last winter, many working conditions for Seattle city employees returned to normal – or a new version of it – when Harrell asked almost all workers to return to in-person work and lifted mask requirements in public buildings as vaccine rates climbed locally.

In addition to the dozens of employees who were suspended or terminated from the city for not complying with initial vaccine requirement, others left or threatened to leave last summer as Harrell cracked down on remote work.

Harrell chipped away at the city’s COVID precautions throughout 2022, lifting moratoria on evictions in February, asking the council to end a pandemic-related hazard pay requirement for certain businesses over the summer and ultimately lifting the city’s state of emergency in the fall.

In Snohomish County, Executive Dave Somers never established a mandate because his administration, “in our assessment and based on the advice of the county’s health officer at the time,” believed doing so would have had only a minimal effect on vaccination rates, a spokesperson said Monday.

The vaccination rates for employees in departments reporting to Somers “were comparable and often exceeded” the vaccination rate for the county’s population as a whole, Kelsey Nyland, deputy communications director for the executive, wrote in an email. “We were proactive about increasing employee vaccination update, which included offering financial incentives.”

A COVID vaccination mandate remains in place for most employees at most Washington state agencies.

On Monday, a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee said the governor currently has “no plans to modify or remove” the same mandate for state employees.

“As an employer we strive to maintain a safe and healthy workforce,” said Jaime Smith, a spokesperson for the governor, adding that the Inslee administration “negotiated with state employees on the plan to incentivize boosters.”

Inslee initially established a requirement in 2021, at the same time Seattle and King County did.

Though Inslee’s COVID emergency declaration ended Oct. 31, 2022, he issued a new directive to maintain a vaccination mandate for state employees, which took effect Nov. 1, 2022.

Seattle Times staff writer Dan Beekman contributed to this report.

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