OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee’s order for 63,000 state workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has drawn broad outcry from conservatives, large protests from state workers and legal challenges by employees who stand to lose their jobs under the mandate.
But if Washington’s biggest agencies are any indication, state employees are largely complying with the mandate that they be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs.
The Washington Department of Corrections, (DOC) which oversees the state’s 12 prisons, has verified that 89% of workers have been vaccinated as of noon Thursday, according to a spokesperson. That’s a steep rise from a few weeks ago, when individual prisons reported vaccination rates among staffers as low as 39%.
The Department of Social and Health Services — Washington’s largest state agency, with nearly 16,000 employees — had verified 91% of its workers as vaccinated as of Thursday.
The state Department of Transportation meanwhile is at 93% verified vaccinated as of Friday morning, and the Washington State Patrol announced Wednesday that 93% of its workers had been vaccinated.
At the Department of Children, Youth and Families, that number stood at nearly 87% as of Wednesday — up from around 50% three weeks ago.
“I’m cautiously optimistic there,” said Secretary Ross Hunter, whose agency oversees foster care and child protective services. “We believe that people are making that decision because they care about the safety of their co-workers and really they care about the safety of the people that we serve.”
The vaccination figures at those and other agencies may well rise further in the coming weeks.
To be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, workers would have had to get their final shot by Oct. 4. But since Inslee issued the orders in August, labor deals and actions by the administration have effectively extended the deadline for many state workers.
The numbers are dispelling the notion that a mass exodus of state employees unwilling to get their shots could cripple government services.
Still, state agencies must plan to deliver critical services — from running the prisons and patrolling the highways to investigating child abuse and staffing psychiatric hospitals — with fewer workers. Agencies have prepared contingency plans to make sure they could continue essential functions.
State officials and others say they are now looking more at isolated scenarios in specific government facilities or in critical functions where departing workers might not be easy to replace.
For Hunter, that means potentially shifting staff around to make sure child protective services investigations can still take place within 24 hours for high-risk situations.
“We will shift staff around to make that happen,” said Hunter. “We will have managers pick up a caseload.”
The Washington State Patrol and corrections department have been of particular concern. A widespread loss of workers in those departments could ripple out, hampering public safety and potentially violating the civil rights or worsening conditions of people in custody.
In a statement Friday morning, Secretary Cheryl Strange said the agency is “feeling very hopeful and encouraged by our vaccination numbers.”
“Staff is very committed to the safety of their colleagues and those in our care and custody,” Strange said in prepared remarks. “COVID had been hard on everyone including families and friends. Once we are through this, I am confident that a new, more hopeful normal will prevail.”
The stakes of the moment are visible right now, say advocates for incarcerated individuals, with a COVID-19 outbreak currently at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula.
The outbreak started in August with five corrections workers and has since grown to 55 staff and incarcerated individuals, according to the Peninsula Daily News. A local health officer has said unvaccinated corrections workers have gone on to infect members of the community and their own households.
Amy Crewdson, a staff attorney for the advocacy group Columbia Legal Services, called the outbreak “obviously really concerning” and a prime example of why the vaccine mandate is needed.
Crewdson has been working on a lawsuit where people in custody are alleging state prison and health officials have not done enough to protect incarcerated individuals from COVID-19. She also worries that staff departures could affect incarcerated individuals.
Prisons that lose too many staff could potentially cut back on educational and religious programming, or addiction recovery programs.
Because the state’s 12 prisons are spread throughout the state — from Clallam Bay to Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane County — shifting staff around is not necessarily an easy alternative.
“It’s not just like you can say, ‘Oh somebody that works at the penitentiary can just run up the road to Airway Heights … to cover a shift’,” she said.
Asked about contingency plans if workers leave, DOC spokesperson Jacque Coe wrote in an email that “we have sufficient staffing in place to ensure the safety and security of staff and incarcerated persons in our care and custody.”
Part of a contingency plan released by Inslee’s office shows varying scenarios that could come to play for each of the 12 prisons.
Some facilities, such as Monroe Correctional Complex, are anticipating “normal operations with possible reductions in non-essential programs/services.”
Others, like Clallam Bay, could see reductions in staffing and reduced operations, with potentially restricted movement for people in custody.
The plan, which was dated Oct. 5, when a lower number of DOC workers were verified as vaccinated, also stated a broad concern about a shortage of vaccinated medical staff “amid chronic vacancies of nurses.”
That included Clallam Bay, according to the memo, where contingency planning could include “contract nurses, transfer patients to other facilities, urgent and emergency on-site care only, will rely on community hospitals for emergency treatment and hospitalization.”
‘Manageable’ staffing losses
Inslee’s emergency orders that state and school workers and hundreds of thousands of health care employees get their shots or lose their jobs on Oct. 18 has spurred union reaction and lawsuits, along with more workers getting vaccinated.
“We’re still very pleased with where the vaccination rates are headed,” wrote Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk in an email.
When the State Patrol announced it had reached its 93% vaccination rate, spokesperson Chris Loftis said that the improvement would lessen the chances of major disruptions.
He described it as “manageable as opposed to restrictive” in terms of patrolling the highways or other responsibilities performed by the agency.
“Any loss is significant, but we are a very large organization spread across the state,” said Loftis. “So we hope that we are able to deploy our vast resources for all our law enforcement responsibilities to be met.”
With a vaccination rate at 91%, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is also in a stronger position than a few weeks ago. Among other things, the agency oversees developmental disabilities programs and economic assistance, as well as the two state psychiatric hospitals: Eastern State and Western State.
Those two institutions illustrate how vaccination rates can vary between different parts of the state.
As of Monday, Western State Hospital — the state’s largest psychiatric facility, located in Lakewood, Pierce County — had verified 92% of its 2,323 staff as vaccinated, according to DSHS.
Eastern State Hospital, located in Spokane County, as of the same day had 83% workers verified as vaccinated out of its staff of 841.
Asked about contingency plans, DSHS spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet wrote in an email that the agency “cannot answer today about what things will be like in two weeks.”
“We are currently going through contingency planning for both state hospitals to determine how we provide patient care and won’t know the exact outcome until the mandate deadline of Oct. 18. We will then look at the situation and proceed accordingly,” he added.
Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said he is concerned about juvenile rehabilitation facilities in Eastern Washington. Those facilities help youth serving sentences of confinement to reintegrate themselves into society, so they can go to college or get a job.
“If we have to go to mandatory overtime we will do that, I would prefer not to do that,” he said. “We believe we will have the staff to cover the situations … we will meet our federal staffing requirements necessary to keep kids safe.”
“We will be able to meet those,” he added. “Some other stuff may slow down, in reality.”