Tens of thousands of Washington state employees — along with many private-sector healthcare workers — will be required to receive COVID-19 vaccinations or face firing, according to a sweeping mandate announced Monday by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Affected workers will have until Oct. 18 to get fully vaccinated, and show proof, or face “non-disciplinary dismissal” for failure to meet job requirements, according to Inslee’s office. Employees will be allowed to seek exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
Inslee and other state and local officials were scheduled to officially announce the mandate during a 1 p.m. news conference at Kaiser Permanente’s Capitol Hill campus in Seattle. The announcement comes amid a surge in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine were also set to join the news conference to announce similar mandates for city and county employees.
The mandate for state workers applies to agencies under the governor’s control, but not K-12 schools or colleges and universities — though some already have announced their own requirements.
Washington has more than 68,000 state government employees, excluding the higher education system. The vaccines will be required regardless of whether employees have returned to in-person worksites to or are still working from home.
King County has about 13,500 executive branch employees who would be subject to the rule, a spokesperson for Constantine said. The city of Seattle has about 12,000 employees potentially subject to the mandate.
That covers a range of different agencies, such as the Departments of Commerce, Ecology and Agriculture, as well as the Washington State Patrol. It will apply to the state’s largest agencies, including the Departments of Transportation, Corrections and Social and Health Services. Employees will be required to show proof of vaccination.
The governor’s order, made under his emergency powers, will also apply to private-sector healthcare workers and those in long-term care settings, including nursing homes, adult family homes, assisted living and residential treatment facilities, according to the governor’s office.
Long-term care facilities absorbed much of the deadly blows of the pandemic, accounting for 4% of total cases but 44% of total deaths in Washington. In the state’s nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult family homes, 121 currently have at least one active case of COVID-19 among residents or staff members.
Across Washington state, 67% of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated, compared to 82% of residents as of July 25, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which tracks nursing home numbers but not other long-term care facilities.
The mandate will not apply to employees reporting to the state’s eight other statewide independently elected officials — such as secretary of state, the attorney general’s office, or the commissioner of public lands, who oversees the Department of Natural Resources.
California and New York last week announced requirements for government workers to get vaccinated or else submit to weekly tests to make sure they don’t have the virus.
But Washington will not allow testing in lieu of vaccination, according to an outline of the plan from Inslee’s office.
Despite interest in that option from labor organizations and other groups, Inslee’s rejected the approach, saying it had been shown to be inadequate at health care facilities that have tried it.
Inslee had signaled the mandate possibility at a news conference last week, citing the spread of the delta variant, which has spiked through communities in recent weeks, although with mostly mild outcomes among vaccinated people.
“We know we have to increase our vaccinations, that’s a certainty,” Inslee said at a news conference last week. “The question is how to do that in a reasonable way.”
Health officials have said disease modeling shows the delta variant likely accounts for more than 90% of new COVID-19 cases in Washington. About 53% of Washington residents had been fully vaccinated as of last week, including nearly 64% of those 16 and older.
Inslee did not announce a new masking mandate, but a spokesperson for his office said that continues to be an option if COVID-19 infections continue to rise.