Inslee: Washington State Teachers, Child Care Workers Can Now Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19

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Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday afternoon said teachers and licensed childcare workers could seek doses of COVID-19 vaccines immediately, assenting to new directions from the federal government.

"... Educators and licensed childcare workers can schedule with providers right away," Inslee said in a statement.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday had directed governors to open access to educators and childcare workers. He also announced that federal supply of vaccines would expand, with doses available to all adult Americans by the end of May.

The presidential announcement promises to accelerate the pace of Washington state's vaccine rollout — which of late, has been constrained primarily laggard federal supply of doses. It will also help open schools. But the decision also shifts state vaccination priorities and leaves some workers among the most at risk watching as educators jump ahead in line.

"We will continue the current state plans and goals to focus on those most at risk, including older adults and those facing the greatest equity gaps," Inslee said.

"To that end, I will soon be announcing when our state vaccine prioritization will be moving to include critical workers in certain congregate settings including those who work in grocery stores, farmworkers, food processors, bus drivers, corrections workers and others."

Biden's announcement answers months of calls from teachers unions here and across the country who are advocating for educators to be vaccinated before teaching in-person. Unlike states such as Minnesota, New York and West Virginia, a majority of Washington's teachers have yet to receive a dose.

School districts in Washington state have been among the slowest in the country to reopen to a broader set of students as they remain locked in labor negotiations. Vaccines aren't the only issue at the bargaining table for these districts, but education officials seemed hopeful at the news.

"This should bring a huge sense of relief for educators who have been working in-person for weeks or months," said Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union. "For those districts still working with their districts to ensure the safest possible return to classrooms, this important layer of protection when offered in concert with CDC, the state Department of Health and Labor and Industries safety requirements, should help build trust and confidence for a return to in-person learning."

Just last week, a group of state lawmakers from Seattle tried to lobby state and city officials to speed up the process for educators as Seattle Public Schools and its teachers union remained at an impasse over reopening.

"Ah man, that's fabulous," said state representative Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, when informed of Biden's directive. "This is optimistic news."

Inslee and other state officials have acknowledged the need to vaccinate educators, but hadn't heeded advocates' calls to bump teachers up in the priority queue. About 153,000 adults work in Washington schools, including about 68,000 teachers.

Access to more vaccines could speed students' return to school buildings, said officials in the state's education department. Only 30% of the state's schoolchildren are currently learning in-person.

In January, the state announced a partnership with Kaiser Permanente that would help educators avoid long waits for a vaccine appointment by creating additional vaccine sites near or on school campuses. It's unclear how the state's plan would interact with the federal government's plan to offer educators doses through a retail pharmacy program.

"We're meeting with health and the governor's office tomorrow morning to see how it impacts our state, but we don't know anything in addition to what was shared" by President Biden on Tuesday, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The directive causes concerns that other groups of frontline workers in Washington will get bumped down the priority list.

Seafood industry workers have been buffeted by COVID-19 outbreaks that have cropped up in offshore factory ships and shoreside processing plants. Farmworkers and food processing workers who harvest and process the state's crops also have been at risk.

Employers of both groups have fought to get Washington state to put a greater focus on getting these workers vaccinated.

Erik Nicholson, an eastern Washington consultant involved with farmworker labor issues, said he had been hopeful that all farmworkers and food processing workers could start to get vaccinated within a few weeks' time.

"We tried mightily to get the farmworkers elevated, and we prevailed," Nicholson said. "Now, the question is how far back down the list do they go."

Some farms and orchards already are bringing guest workers from Mexico and other countries for pruning and winter work under the H-2A temporary visa program. Currently, these workers all are being tested for the virus before they are lodged in labor camps and start their employment. But they have yet to get vaccinations, according to Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA), which assists in bringing in these workers.

"They are living in congregant housing. That is why it is so vital we get them vaccinated," Fazio said. "The guys have friends and relatives here, and if they visit them, they could bring back the virus."

Grocery employees, who interact frequently with members of the public, will also move further back in line.

"We got bumped. It is unfortunate. I know this group has anxiously been waiting to get their vaccination," said Tammie Hetrick, president of the Washington Food Industry Association. "I also understand getting kids back to school."

The Seattle City Council passed legislation in January requiring large grocery stores to pay $4 an hour to employees for hazard pay. Hetrick bristled at the idea that grocers would be required by government to pay extra as they now wait for employees pushed backward in the vaccine waiting line.

"If you're going to claim we're a hazardous industry and claim hazard pay, then do something about it," Hetrick said, who added that "stores are pretty safe." Last month, the grocery industry sued Seattle over the legislation.

Promises of new federal supply and access to vaccines will add new pressure to the state's newly built mass vaccination infrastructure.

State officials in January set a statewide goal to perform 45,000 vaccinations a day, hoping to protect about 70% of Washington's adult population by summer's end. Biden has now promised all adults a shot by the end of May.

By the end of February, vaccine providers were inoculating 37,481 people each day, according to a seven-day average reported on the state's COVID-19 data dashboard.

Seattle Times reporter Joseph O'Sullivan contributed to this report.

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