OLYMPIA — Vaccinated or not, you will soon need to wear a mask indoors again in Washington.
And if you work at a school, community college or child care center, you are going to have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-October or you could lose your job.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced those sweeping changes Wednesday in response to an unrelenting surge in coronavirus cases across the state that is overtaxing, and in some communities overwhelming, the health care system.
“We are in the middle of an explosive threat in our communities and we intend to confront it,” Inslee said at a news conference. “It’s important people understand why this is happening. It’s because not enough people are getting vaccinated.”
Meanwhile Wednesday, foes of a vaccine mandate for health care workers and mask requirements for students conducted rallies outside hospitals and school offices in several cities in Snohomish County. And as Inslee spoke, several dozen people gathered inside the Capitol and loudly chanted their opposition to mask rules in schools.
Starting Monday, the governor is reimposing a requirement that masks be worn by everybody, regardless of vaccination status, in retail stores, restaurants and other public indoor settings. Children under the age of 5 and people with medical conditions that prevent wearing a face covering are exempt.
For weeks, public health experts and elected leaders have warned that old COVID restrictions might need to be revived to slow the virus’ fifth wave, which is filling hospital beds statewide.
In Snohomish County, both the number of people hospitalized due to the virus and the 14-day case rate are the highest they’ve been since the last winter.
The fifth wave is the result of not enough people getting vaccinated, a lack of indoor mask wearing and the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, county health officer Dr. Chris Spitters has said.
Spitters issued a similar Snohomish Health District directive last week requiring mask-wearing indoors by all people older than 5, regardless of vaccination status.
46% in county not vaccinated
Statewide, about 4.1 million people are fully vaccinated, but 2 million people aged 12 and older who are eligible have not yet gotten a shot.
Across Snohomish County, about 46% of people are not fully vaccinated, state Department of Health data show.
They account for about 80% of COVID cases since July 1, Spitters said.
While fully vaccinated residents are better protected from infection, hospitalization and death, the delta COVID variant is causing more “breakthrough” cases — infections among vaccinated people.
“One of the best ways to overcome imperfect vaccine effectiveness, like we’re dealing with now, is to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” Spitters said.
The vaccine mandate for educators comes as more than a million students prepare to return to classrooms and lecture halls for the new school year.
And it comes less that a week after state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal sent Inslee a letter “strongly encouraging” the action.
“This is the best way to keep schools open,” said Reykdal, who joined Inslee at the news conference. If those measures are not taken and campuses are shut down, Reykdal said, it will hurt students.
The mandate is backed by the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union. About 80% of its members already are vaccinated, according to WEA President Larry Delaney.
“By vaccinating staff we reduce the possibility of infecting those who cannot be vaccinated, including our students under 12 years old,” he said. “WEA calls on everyone who can to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
It earned a more lukewarm response from the Public School Employees of Washington, the union which represents roughly 30,000 bus drivers, para-educators, office professionals and other non-certificated workers.
“The governor has determined that a vaccine mandate for higher education and K-12 employees is necessary, and PSE understands that its members will be required to abide by that order,” George Dockins, executive director, said in a statement.
‘Publicly shaming people’
Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, blasted the vaccine mandate, saying Inslee was “intimidating and publicly shaming people who have sincere concerns.”
“No other governor has gone so far to take deeply personal health-care choices away from people and force them to inject something into their bodies,” he said in a statement.
Inslee defended his actions, saying they, like others throughout the pandemic, were calibrated in a way to ensure widespread compliance.
“We need the public behind us,” he said. “You can’t issue orders that aren’t going to have some degree of public acceptance.”
In elementary and secondary schools, the vaccine requirement applies to teachers, staff, coaches, bus drivers, lunch room volunteers and others working in school facilities. It covers public, private and charter schools but not tribal schools. And it does not apply to students. Overall, an estimated 155,000 people are affected.
Inslee’s order also applies to 90,000 staff, faculty and employees of two- and four-year colleges, as well as about 118,000 workers of licensed child care and early learning providers that serve children from multiple households.
Under the mandate, workers will have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment. People can obtain exemptions for legitimate medical reasons and sincerely held religious beliefs. There will be no option for regular testing in lieu of vaccination.
The mandate is identical to the one Inslee issued Aug. 9 for roughly 60,000 state employees and 400,000 workers in public and private health care settings. They, too, have an Oct. 18 deadline to either get vaccinated or get an exemption. Inslee said that by Oct. 5, it will be known who has received shots and who hasn’t and thus faces potential dismissal.
When combined, the orders cover roughly 820,000 workers in Washington. On top of that, other statewide elected officials, such as the attorney general, insurance commissioner and state auditor, are imposing the same requirement on their employees. And the state Supreme Court followed suit Wednesday and called on all courts in the judicial branch to do the same.
If the spread of the disease isn’t slowed, other sectors could be hit with mandates.
“This may not be the end of our efforts,” Inslee said, noting that the state has wide powers to set safety standards for employers.
Hitting the streets
Critics of the governor’s approach made their voices heard throughout the county Wednesday.
Just after noon, about a hundred people demonstrated against the rules for health care workers outside Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. A much smaller similar protest was held last week in Snohomish.
Dozens of drivers blared their horns and waved in support as they drove down 14th Street, past the sign-toting protesters.
A registered nurse who works at Providence stepped outside the hospital during her lunch break to see what all the commotion was about. The nurse, who asked to remain anonymous, said she is pro-vaccine. She noted that health care workers have been getting vaccinated against other diseases for many years — such as chicken pox, rubella and Hepatitis B.
“A lot of these people protesting are my co-workers, and I’m really surprised they are out here,” the nurse said. “We get vaccinated not just to protect ourselves, but to protect our patients, as well.”
A protester who also asked to remain anonymous said she believes health care workers should be able to choose whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m here to fight for medical freedom for our health care workers who have worked so hard through this pandemic,” she said.
A Providence hospital spokesman responded to the rally with a statement backing the governor’s action while noting the severe impact of the current wave of infections:
“Our hospital, including the intensive care unit, is currently operating at full licensed capacity, and many of our current patients are unvaccinated and suffering with severe and sometimes life-threatening COVID infections,” Providence said. “We recognize that the mandate may evoke a strong response from some, but we also know that the vaccine is a safe and effective way to stop the spread of this deadly virus and decrease the amount of sickness, suffering, and death in our community.”
In the late afternoon, demonstrations against the school mask mandate were planned in downtown Snohomish and at several school district offices, including Marysville, Lake Stevens and Everett.
School districts which fail to comply with the state rules requiring students and staff to wear masks on campus could face a loss of state dollars, Reykdal has said.
In Marysville, dozens gathered outside the school district’s office on 80th Avenue, waving anti-mask and anti-vaccine signs to passersby.
Several unmasked residents were denied entrance to the school board’s Wednesday afternoon workshop. Outside the building, they said Inslee’s orders were infringing on their civil rights.
“The biggest danger we have today is bigger government,” said Kelly Jay of Arlington. “Fear is being used to push people into this situation where we partner together to give government more power. Instead, we need to be partnering together to stand for each other’s rights.”
Said Inslee, when asked if he had a response to opponents’ assertions: “Freedom from COVID is a freedom we are protecting. We are protecting their freedom to be alive.”
Herald reporter Ellen Dennis contributed to this report.
Jerry Cornfield: firstname.lastname@example.org; 360-352-8623 @dospueblos