WENATCHEE — Demonstrators shutting down a school board meeting by refusing to wear masks. Protesters picketing the hospital campus against the vaccine mandate for health care workers. Hospital patients suspicious about the new shots — or over the very fact that they have COVID-19.

The scenes playing out in Wenatchee are familiar across Washington in recent months.

The backlash to vaccine and masking requirements hit perhaps a new high: thousands of people protesting in Olympia and Spokane. Government meetings shut down by demonstrators in Sequim, Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and elsewhere. Schools put on lockdown in Vancouver after protests there.

For much of the 19-month-long pandemic, conservatives across Washington have decried government mandates — particularly those ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee.

They have stewed over the governor’s marathon succession of public health orders — with no intervention by the Legislature’s Democratic majorities — as an infringement on individual rights and overreach by the executive branch.

“COVID’s bad, but the issue that we need to rally about has more to do with constitutional governance than it has to do with the immediate issues of public health,” said Rep. Jim Walsh. A Republican from Aberdeen who has spoken frequently against the mandates, he said he always makes clear that he is not anti-vaccine.

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But as vaccination rates lag in many parts of rural Washington, political anger is erupting, as the pandemic bites deeply into communities outside Puget Sound.

A woman makes her case to not wear a mask before the regular Walla Walla City Council meeting Sept. 22. (Greg Lehman / Union-Bulletin)

Fueled by the more contagious delta variant, the COVID-19 wave since July 1 has swamped rural hospitals and required hundreds of emergency transfers of patients to larger counties, like King, Pierce and Spokane.

King County — Washington’s largest by population, and a place where nearly 85% of residents 12 years and up have gotten at least one shot — has seen lower death and hospitalization rates in this recent wave.

Meanwhile, deaths from the virus have climbed steeply across southwestern, northeastern and Central Washington, according to state health data.

COVID-19 in rural Washington

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Last year, Chelan — along with Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Pacific, Lewis, Lincoln, Ferry and Stevens counties — all had lower COVID-19 death rates per 100,000 than King County. That situation has since flipped. Four of those counties are in southwest Washington and make up some of Walsh’s 19th Legislative district.

Cowlitz County alone saw 94 COVID-19 fatalities in the past three months — on top of the 98 deaths there in the pandemic’s first 16 months. Deaths have climbed in Chelan County, too. Central Washington Hospital saw 28 deaths in the month of September. Last week, it hit a COVID-19 record for ICU patients.

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Hospital workers in Wenatchee — which is in Chelan County and takes patients from Douglas County — say they have been exhausted by the pandemic workload, a shortage of workers and the skepticism toward public health orders and vaccines.

“The staff are really battling the sense that this isn’t real; the battle over masking and the battle over vaccinations. There’s an overwhelming sense of fatigue,” said Tracey Kasnic, chief nursing officer of Central Washington Hospital, part of Confluence Health.

Vaccine resistance

Throughout the pandemic, some in Wenatchee have offered their own resistance to pandemic orders. A lawsuit dismissed last year against Inslee bore the name of City Councilman Jose Cuevas. Since summer, a group called Unmask Our Kids WA has advocated against statewide mask orders and vaccine mandates.

Cuevas — who said he is unvaccinated and was diagnosed with COVID-19 in August — still disagrees with the governor’s orders.

“We lost, I just move on, I just let it go,” said Cuevas, who added that he was a bit suspicious of his diagnosis because he gets sick every year around that time. “Honestly, we can’t do anything.”

That resistance gained a new round of life this summer, as a COVID-19 surge returned and Inslee reimposed mandates.

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People gathered outside the Wenatchee Valley Hospital & Clinics campus on Sept. 23 to protest a vaccine mandate for employees of Confluence Health. A new state mandate requires private health care employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or lose their employment. (Reilly Kneedler / Wenatchee World)

More than 100 people gathered outside the Confluence Health campus — including some employees — opposed to Inslee’s order that health care workers get vaccinated or lose their jobs, according to The Wenatchee World.

The Tri-Cities area also has been a hub of frustration throughout the pandemic. In Pasco, the Franklin County Commission delayed its meeting after Commissioner Clint Didier, with dozens of audience members, refused to put masks on and called for civil disobedience. Didier didn’t respond to calls or emails seeking comment.

The Tri-Cities region has gotten hit hard again.

Franklin County saw 118 COVID-19 deaths through July 1, and 44 since then, according to state health data. Meanwhile, Benton County had 230 pandemic deaths through July 1 — and 100 more since then.

In Kennewick, which is in Benton County, state Rep. Brad Klippert spoke against mask and vaccine mandates in late August at a “Freedom for Choice” rally.

“I support anyone who wants to wear a mask, anyone who wants to be vaccinated, I support their freedom of choice,” said Klippert, R-Kennewick. “But I strongly and vehemently am opposed to the mandates.”

“We are supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, according to Francis Scott Key, who wrote our national anthem,” Klippert added.

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In speaking against the mandates, Klippert pointed out that vaccinated people can still get COVID-19 — which is true — and spread it.

In rare cases, vaccinated people still die from the virus, such as Lewis County Commissioner Gary Stamper, who died Wednesday and was vaccinated, according to the Chronicle of Centralia.

But the shots have been shown to be safe and effective at keeping the vast majority of people from being hospitalized and dying.

Since February, Washingtonians 12 years and older who weren’t completely vaccinated made up nearly 94% of confirmed COVID-19 cases, as well as 94.5% of hospitalizations and 92.9% of fatalities, state health officials have said.

In a statement, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee called the mandates “not only necessary to protect health and prevent infection among people who could be vaccinated, but also to protect those who cannot be vaccinated — such as children under 12.”

“Additionally, by reducing the number of unvaccinated people in hospitals, we can free up space for surgeries, accidents, routine medical care and other things not related to COVID,” Lee wrote. “The healthcare system has been stretched to the limit for far too long.”

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Lee added that “vaccines such as polio, measles and rubella have been mandated for kids to go to school for generations … This is not the first time that government has taken action to protect the health of its residents.”

“Gasoline on the fire”

Resistance or hesitation to vaccines and masks have been around for as long the technology itself.

“You see like these old comics from like the 1800s depicting horrendous side effects from vaccines,” said Kolina Koltai, a post-doctorate researcher affiliated with the University of Washington.

And the hesitance itself to get a new vaccine is natural, said Koltai, who researches the intersection of vaccine information on social media.

The explosion of social media, however, is a new twist that during the pandemic has made it easy for vaccine-opposed content to spread quickly: “It’s like throwing gasoline on the fire.”

Walla Walla farmer Adolf Klein makes the case that masks have hurt small businesses before the regular meeting was closed because people refused to put on masks or leave Sept. 22. (Greg Lehman / Union-Bulletin)

That issue hit the spotlight again this week, as YouTube announced it would remove video channels associated with several high-profile vaccine opponents like Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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Some people opposing vaccines are true believers that they are harmful, Koltai said, while others might just be harnessing the issue for other motivations.

Ultimately, “there’s a difference between someone who’s like actually hesitant and someone who’s an anti-vaxxer,” said Koltai, adding: “There are a lot of people that are still reachable, and at the end of the day everyone wants to be healthy.”

In Wenatchee, hospitals workers are confronting those factors one by one.

Dr. Saba Lodhi, physician medical director for Central Washington Hospital’s intensive care unit, still sees pulmonary patients in that role. And she has seen a change in the patients’ trust levels with COVID-19.

“Patients who have been my patients for a decade now question in a different way,” she said. “It’s more in a way of, ‘How do you know the biochemistry on this? But I read this on Google …’ “

Kasnic, the hospital’s chief nursing officer, meanwhile, is trying to persuade skeptical employees to get their shots before the Oct. 18 mandate deadline.

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“I’ve had many talks with some of the staff that aren’t vaccinated and don’t want to get vaccinated,” said Kasnic, who’s worked at the hospital for 22 years. “And say, ‘would you like to take a walk-through? Because I’m going to be really upset if you’re in one of these beds.’ “

She was referring to a walk-through of the hospital’s ICU — where 10 COVID-19 patients lay on a recent day hooked to ventilators.

“I’ve gotten two vaccinated that way,” she said. “They didn’t know what it was going to look like.”

In an interview last week, Kasnic said she had just worked 35 days in a row, adding: “I didn’t ever think that I would have to be doing any of this.”