Local health officials are now recommending hospitals and long-term care facilities in King County require COVID-19 vaccinations for all health care workers.
The recommendation, released Friday by Public Health – Seattle & King County, comes as the delta variant surges through the state, coinciding with what some public health officials are calling a “fifth wave” of virus infections. In King County, about 79.5% of eligible residents had received at least one vaccine dose as of Friday.
“No patient should have to worry about getting COVID-19 from a health care provider,” King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said in a statement. “Protection against COVID-19 reduces the risk of severe illness and protects the safety of patients, health care workers, families and our community.”
The guidance has been endorsed by a wide range of medical, health care and public heath professional societies and organizations that have agreed COVID-19 vaccinations should be a “condition of employment” for all health care workers, according to the county’s public health department.
Requiring vaccination among health care workers is “important for patient and health care worker safety,” the health department said in a statement.
Advantages include further protection for patients and health care providers unable to receive a shot or mount an adequate immune response, reduced risk of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission, and reduced risk of transmitting infection to household members and community contacts, according to public health officials.
Workers with medical exemptions or any others specified by law would be excused from the requirement, though employers could require those employees to remain masked, follow physical distancing measures — including reassignment away from vulnerable patient populations — or undergo frequent COVID-19 testing.
Some hospitals have already implemented a vaccination mandate for their workers, including all University of Washington Medicine hospitals and clinics.
The policy aligns with UW Medicine’s broader campus policy for faculty, staff, trainees and student employees, according to a statement from the department. As of Friday, more than 80% of UW Medicine frontline workers had been vaccinated.
Lisa Brandenburg, president of UW Medicine hospitals and clinics, said in a recent video statement she feels receiving care is “very safe” at the health care system’s four hospitals: Harborview Medical Center, UW Medical Center-Montlake, UW Medical Center-Northwest and Valley Medical Center in Renton.
Every patient is tested before admission and during their stay, limited visitors are masked, and rates of infections among employees are “very low,” Brandenburg said.
Swedish Health Services, formerly Swedish Medical Center, is working on developing a new vaccine policy for caregivers, which will be rolled out shortly, hospital spokesperson Tiffany Moss said Friday. As of last week, about 85% of Swedish’s health care workers were fully or partially vaccinated, she said.
Other hospitals in the county, like Bellevue-based Overlake Medical Center & Clinics, are deciding against implementing a vaccination requirement.
Overlake is routinely educating employees and staff on the “critical importance of the vaccines and strongly encouraging them to get vaccinated,” according to spokesperson Chelsea Bryant. She added that the hospital will review and potentially make changes to safety requirements as the pandemic continues.
About 83% of Overlake’s employees and staff have been vaccinated, she said. The hospital also still requires patients, visitors and staff to wear masks and follow distancing guidelines.
Seattle Children’s and Virginia Mason Franciscan Health also aren’t requiring vaccinations, but have both said they’re “strongly encouraging” hospital staff to get immunized, according to hospital spokespeople.
Gov. Jay Inslee and state health officials this week said disease modeling shows the delta variant likely now accounts for more than 90% of new cases. The state Department of Health also released a report this week that found Washingtonians 12 and older who are unvaccinated made up 97% of COVID-19 cases, 96% of hospitalizations and 94% of deaths between February and June.
Information from The Seattle Times’ archives was included in this story.