OLYMPIA — The actions Washington took during the COVID-19 pandemic worked to save lives and keep businesses and schools open, but more is still needed to get the country out of the pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee told Congress on Thursday.
Inslee joined other state and city leaders in testifying to the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis about their response to the omicron variant. Democratic Govs. Jared Polis, of Colorado, and Pedro Pierluisi, of Puerto Rico; D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, of Nebraska, all discussed what actions are still needed to slow the spread of the virus.
The hearing and governors' comments drew criticism from Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and other Republican members of the subcommittee, who claimed some governments have been too heavy-handed in their mandates and vaccine strategy.
But Inslee said Washington has used three principles when dealing with the COVID-19 virus: science and public health experts; saving lives; and suppressing the virus to safely reopen the economy.
"Did those strategies work? They worked big time," he told members of the committee.
Washington faced the country's first COVID-19 outbreak , having seen the first case of the virus two years ago on Friday.
Inslee pointed to the state's use of masking and vaccines, what he called the most effective measures.
Washington implemented a statewide mask mandate in June 2020. Besides several weeks last summer when the mandate was lifted, it has been in place ever since. He said the mask mandate was the most effective action the state has taken. Inslee announced earlier this month the state would give 10 million free N95 and KN95 masks to local communities through schools, governments and health departments.
All testifiers said the vaccine was the most effective way to fight the virus.
Inslee pointed to the state's vaccination rate. More than 74% of those 12 and older are considered fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health. Inslee also mentioned the state's vaccination requirement for state employees, health care workers and educators.
McMorris Rodgers submitted a statement to the committee criticizing Inslee's work during the pandemic, specifically his decision to implement a mask mandate for K-12 schools.
"The response to COVID-19 in Washington State will have devastating consequences for our children's and state's future," her statement read.
She also said school closures have kept students out of the classroom "for too long," leading to learning loss and lower test scores. Inslee has said keeping schools open remains a top priority in the coming months of the pandemic.
She added the government response to the pandemic has led to a nationwide labor shortage, including in the health care sector.
All governors testifying Thursday pushed the federal government for more funding for health care and nurses as there is a shortage nationwide.
Inslee called on the federal government to help pay for more nurses, health care workers and the behavioral health response needed after the pandemic.
Pierluisi said hospitals in Puerto Rico were able to "achieve the near impossible," but they need more federal funding for health care programs.
Washington's most urgent challenges are testing availability and overburdened hospitals, Inslee said.
Washington recently has increased its at-home testing supply with an online portal available to residents as soon as this weekend, according to the Department of Health. Inslee announced last week the state was pausing all non-emergency procedures in hospitals and sending 100 National Guard members to hospitals across the state. Hospitalizations have soared across Washington with the omicron variant, and continued staffing shortages have left many hospitals in a crisis.
In her statement, McMorris Rodgers criticized Inslee's decision to halt all nonurgent procedures but keep a vaccine mandate for all health care workers in the state.
"Imposing heavy-handed vaccine mandates onto our health care workers — who have gone above and beyond the call of duty during this pandemic — has proved to be reckless, cruel and ineffective at stopping the spread of the virus," her statement read.
The governors and committee members also discussed differences in virus case rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Democrats cited misinformation within the Republican Party for the differing vaccine rates. Republicans said guidance and information on the vaccine have consistently changed, making many people untrusting.
Inslee said there is a "profound difference" in vaccination rates between Democrats and Republicans.
Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation's COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor showed among those who are unvaccinated, about 60% identified as Republican compared to about 17% who identified as Democrats. The Nov. 16 study compared vaccination rates from April to October. Although the number of unvaccinated people has gone down during that time, the percent of those still unvaccinated who identify as Republican has gone up.
The KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor is a research project that tracks the public's attitude and experience with the vaccine, according to their website.
"There just is a sad reality we have to recognize: profoundly different approach to this pandemic based on whether you're red or blue," Inslee said.
Committee ranking member Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, pushed back on the idea that one party is spreading misinformation.
"Stop dividing Americans over the vaccine and start providing Americans with an actual plan to confront this," Scalise said.
The work to fight the virus isn't done yet, the leaders who testified said, and states need the federal government to help.
"The states alone cannot spearhead these efforts indefinitely," Polis said.