Even before Gov. Jay Inslee expanded his COVID-19 vaccination order to K-12 and higher education employees on Wednesday, Washington’s vaccine mandate ranked among the most sweeping and strict in the nation.

Most governors who have imposed such mandates have built in wiggle room, allowing public employees and health care workers to undergo regular coronavirus tests if they choose not to get vaccinated.

Inslee’s orders offer no such slack. Employees at state agencies, schools and universities must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face termination. Inoculations also will be a condition of employment for hundreds of thousands of people working in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

The U.S. remains polarized over vaccine mandates even amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by the highly transmissible delta variant. Republican-led states have mostly avoided such orders — with some explicitly banning local mandates — while Democratic governors, like Inslee, have been more willing to impose them.

In all, 21 states and the District of Columbia have some form of COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to a tracker maintained by the national employment law firm Littler Mendelson. They vary in scope, with some aimed narrowly at nursing homes and other vulnerable health care settings, and others affecting all state employees.

Most of the states with vaccine mandates, unlike Washington, allow employees who do not qualify for religious or medical exemptions to submit to frequent testing in lieu of vaccination. And the scope of Inslee’s order is also broader than other states — applying even to state contractors.

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Jeremy Wood, a Seattle-based attorney with Littler Mendelson, who has helped track policies across the country, said in an email, “Washington’s proclamation covers public contractors more broadly than others we’ve seen, requiring vaccination for all public contractors at state worksites, including those outside the health care sector.

“It also doesn’t allow testing in lieu of vaccination; we’re not aware of any other current statewide mandate that doesn’t permit regular testing instead of vaccination.”

The requirements vary by state, but few, if any match Inslee’s hard line. In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the nation’s first vaccine mandate for state employees last month, but specified that those who do not comply can instead take weekly tests and wear masks. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown is requiring vaccination for state government workers, but has allowed health care workers the option of weekly tests.

By contrast, 29 states have no vaccine mandates. That includes Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, which have blown past their previous infection highs in recent weeks.

In Florida, which leads the country in new infections, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has staked out a view diametrically opposite to Inslee’s. DeSantis has vehemently opposed masking and vaccine mandates, saying “we can either have a free society” or “a biomedical security state.”

Inslee has defended his stance on mandatory vaccinations as necessary to fight the resurgent pandemic. While acknowledging some workers wanted the testing option in lieu of vaccinations, he has stood firm in rejecting it.

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“The testing option was not offered because the governor does not believe it is effective or sustainable,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said in an email. He noted that state employees had already undergone regular testing in some facilities, such as state prisons, but that did not prevent outbreaks, including some which have resulted in deaths.

“We are way beyond the point in this pandemic where testing would be the most effective tool to keep communities safe,” Faulk said.

More than 70% of Washington residents 16 and older already have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Washington State Department of Health. In announcing his mandate, Inslee said he believes most state workers will comply with his Oct. 18 deadline, but the governor’s office had no current estimate of how many are already vaccinated.

Republican state lawmakers have objected to the vaccine mandate, arguing Inslee should have at least allowed a testing option for employees who are struggling to decide whether to receive a jab.

“It doesn’t take that much to accommodate their very legitimate concerns,” said state Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, who said GOP staff researching Washington’s mandate “came to the conclusion this was the most restrictive one in the nation.”

Braun emphasized he is vaccinated and is encouraging people to do the same, but he said he worries Inslee’s mandate could have unintended consequences if large swaths of police or nurses decide to quit in the face of the requirement.

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“I hear an awful lot of them saying ‘I am going to leave my job,'” Braun said.

State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who chairs the Senate’s panel overseeing labor relations, said in an interview she agrees Washington’s mandate is one of the strictest, but called the Oct. 18 timeline “pretty generous.”

Keiser said she’s confident most workers affected by the mandates will choose the vaccine and keep their jobs.

“There is a growing realization there are few other options open to us if we are ever going to restore a healthy work life and a healthy economy … The betting is that people will value their employment and their careers and not walk way from them just because they have an ideological antagonism to vaccines,” she said.

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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