On July 1, Gov. Jay Inslee hoisted the “Washington Ready” flag above Seattle’s Space Needle to celebrate the end of more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on business.
Within five weeks, Washington’s daily confirmed caseload had increased nearly tenfold, as the new and ultra-contagious delta variant ripped across the state.
Thus ensued the latest complications as Inslee and state officials soldiered through the peak of Washington’s pandemic for cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
As he has at every stage of the now 21-month-long public health crisis, Inslee responded with strong emergency measures to tamp down on the virus. The blowback of protests across the state evoked the tensions of 2020, as state workers threatened to quit.
On two days in August, he reimposed a mask order and ordered perhaps the strictest vaccine mandate in the nation for hundreds of thousands of state and school workers and health care employees.
And now nearly 92% of 63,000 state workers subject to the mandate are verified as vaccinated.
In a recent interview in his office at the Capitol, Inslee pointed to that figure as well as Washington’s death rate, which throughout the pandemic has continued to register among the lowest in the nation, as signs his orders are effective.
Meanwhile, Washington residents are among the most vaccinated in the nation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“One medical miracle, one common-sense piece of cloth, and in combination they can be very effective,” the governor told The Seattle Times.
But the measures took a toll. Nearly 1,800 state workers have since been dismissed or left their jobs for not complying with the mandate, a number expected to inch up further in the coming weeks.
Vaccine hesitancy combined with misinformation and outrage over a fresh round of government mandates sparked a new wave of protests at the Capitol and across the state, including disruptions at county buildings and school board meetings.
For conservatives opposed to the mandates to curb the virus, the orders renewed angers spurred during last year’s lockdowns, and brought further criticisms of Inslee’s 600-plus days of emergency orders.
“We’re creating bitterness that will last, and to get just a relatively small number of new people vaccinated,” said state House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, who is vaccinated and has encouraged others to get their shots. “Was that worth it?”
The summer surge has since dampened, but not before showing the limits of government’s ability to save lives.
Many counties outside the Puget Sound area saw their hospitalizations and deaths surge, even as King County — home to a third of the state’s population — experienced much milder increases.
In a reversal from last year, counties across the state — from Cowlitz and Lewis, to Grays Harbor, Lincoln, Ferry and Stevens counties — now have higher death rates per 100,000 than King.
Now, Inslee and state health officials are considering new rounds of measures, such as possible requirements for private businesses and a COVID vaccine requirement for children to be in school.
“We haven’t made decisions in or out, for the policies,” Inslee said. “But there is one clear thing that we know. We can get on top of this virus by getting vaccinated.”
‘This isn’t about politics’
An overwhelming majority of those subject to the vaccine mandates by Inslee — and by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine — have complied.
Nearly 92% of state workers subject to Inslee’s mandate are verified as vaccinated, with an additional 3% having gotten accommodations to keep them in a role away from the public. About 3% of the roughly 63,000 workers lost their jobs due to the mandate, and the fates of an additional 2% are still waiting to be determined.
In both King County and Seattle, more than 94% of government employees subject to the mandate are vaccinated as of last week.
They include people like Julie Schick, 68, who works for the city’s drainage and wastewater department. She was vaccinated last spring. But the mandate brought relief. It meant, she said, a less nervy commute when she rides the bus to work.
She sees those who decline vaccination as, essentially, selfish.
“People just really need to stop navel gazing, this isn’t about you, you are just a small piece of the puzzle,” Schick said. “People need to realize this is a community effort; this is a worldwide effort; this isn’t about politics; this is about public health.”
Andrea Gallagher, 51, a fiscal specialist at the University of Washington, Tacoma, said she’d initially tried to consider the perspectives of people who won’t get vaccinated. But as the pandemic has worn on, she’s lost patience.
“I’m not listening anymore,” Gallagher said. “We’re almost two years in now, and I just see not vaccinating and not respecting mandates as, they’re just incubators for different variants and I just don’t see us getting out of this.”
She sees an irony in the public demonstrations from some law enforcement — posting video clips of final sign offs, delivering boots to City Hall — who refuse to comply with the vaccination mandate.
“Aren’t police officers always telling people of color if they’d just comply, things wouldn’t happen at the hands of police?” Gallagher said.
Overall, however, the level of compliance among public workers, and law enforcement in particular, is surprisingly high, said Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at UW.
Despite high-profile refusals, 93% of Seattle police employees and 97% of State Patrol employees are vaccinated.
For a small minority of state employees, the mandates have engendered deep mistrust and hard feelings. They liken the policies to some of the most hateful government policies of the 20th century.
Dana Swift, a design engineer at UW, says the mandate is a “Gestapo-like” tactic, invoking the Nazi secret police.
Swift, 62, is vaccinated but is retiring because of his objection to the mandate and to UW’s broader COVID restrictions.
“The government is doing things that they ought not to do,” Swift said. “The penalty that one incurs by being forced to be vaccinated, the loss of liberty, the weight of that is greater than and is a worse outcome than the risk to someone else from being unvaccinated.”
The government has mandated various vaccines for more than two centuries. The Supreme Court has blessed the practice for more than a century.
Every U.S. state requires certain vaccinations for kids to attend public school, although exemptions vary by state.
Washington requires children to get 16 shots to immunize them against nine diseases before they can enter kindergarten.
People who are vaccinated against COVID can still be hospitalized and die. But the unvaccinated make up the overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and deaths in Washington.
“The presence of those mandates, having kids have to be immunized before they go to school has really done wonders,” said Robert Bednarczyk, assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University’s school of public health. “States have the duty and the responsibility to keep their populations healthy and that’s what they’re really doing here.”
But to Paulene Dougherty, who lost her state job after 18 years working in juvenile rehabilitation, the mandate had the opposite of its intended effect.
She said she’d been hesitant to get vaccinated, had questions and was “waiting and doing research.”
She says the mandate is “against the Nuremberg Code,” the post World War II principles guiding medical research.
“The more it was pushed, the more suspicious I got, and then when it was forced then I really got suspicious,” Dougherty, 62, of Yakima, said. Now she says the “government was up to something” and had “nefarious intent.”
She’s now looking for a new job and considering going out of state.
More orders possible
After more than a year of evolving restrictions on businesses and social activities, Inslee celebrated the end of those measures with a mini-tour, raising the celebration flag, and stopping in Tacoma, Spokane and Seattle.
“It felt like we were entering a more hopeful phase,” said Jamila Thomas, Inslee’s chief of staff.
Within weeks, the Delta variant began spreading in Washington, sending cases back up, and the mood changed. “It was a gut-punch,” said Thomas.
As Inslee and his staff considered their response, Thomas recounted hesitation about bringing back a statewide mask order, which the governor ultimately reimposed in mid-August.
During the spring, the ability for vaccinated Washingtonians to do away with masks had been a key incentive for people to get vaccinated in the first place, said Thomas, adding, “It was really tough to reimpose that.”
Debates about how far a vaccine mandate should go included questions on how strict it should be. And whether to consider routinely testing employees instead of requiring vaccinations was worth the $66 million annual estimated cost, she said.
“Untenable and again, it doesn’t stop the virus,” said Thomas, referring to the costs of testing. Nonetheless, putting in place such a strict mandate for state workers, she said, “There was no certainty of how many would hang with us.”
In Washington, 8,857 people have died of COVID, according to the state Department of Health. The seven-day average of daily deaths peaked in late August and early September at 43 per day, and has since declined.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, praised Inslee’s handling of the latest surge, noting that Washington has seen both fewer deaths and a more resilient economy than most of other states.
“And so while there has been a lot of loss in Washington, there’s been a lot of heartache, a lot of challenge … when you compare it to other states, I think our state’s done very well,” said Billig. “The governor deserves a lot of that credit.”
By early November, about 5,000 Washingtonians daily were still getting their first shot, according to Inslee. That figure could well increase for a time, now that children between 5 and 11 years old are beginning to get the vaccines.
In his quest to get Washingtonians vaccinated, Inslee and health officials are considering additional vaccine orders.
One such idea could come atop the mandates by President Joe Biden that companies with 100 or more employees require COVID shots beginning in January, or as an alternative, be tested on a weekly basis. The governor could potentially use his emergency powers to strengthen that requirement.
In a statement, Kris Johnson, of the Association of Washington Business, said he hoped Inslee doesn’t go farther than the Biden mandate.
“We hope that our state’s leaders consider Washington’s high vaccination rate and do not elect to go beyond the federal government’s requirement by expanding the requirement to smaller businesses or removing the option for testing,” Johnson wrote in prepared remarks. “Employers need every tool available to attract and retain their workforce.”
Meanwhile, the Washington state Board of Health has convened a task force to explore whether COVID vaccination should be required for school attendance.
The board voted unanimously in mid-October to convene a technical advisory group to explore the question. The board would make that decision based on a range of criteria, according to meeting minutes, including effectiveness of the vaccine, disease burden and implementation.
The governor said he hasn’t yet made up his mind on either set of policies.
Biden’s vaccine order “is something we’re going to be watching very closely, to see if it has the desired effect,” Inslee said. Meanwhile, “We are going to watch closely the uptick rate in our schools.”