Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday afternoon said teachers and licensed child care workers could seek COVID-19 vaccines immediately, assenting to new directions from the federal government.
“Educators and licensed child care workers can schedule with providers right away,” Inslee said in a statement.
President Joe Biden earlier on Tuesday directed governors to open access to educators working with students from pre-K age through grade 12, school support staff and child care workers. He also announced that federal supply of vaccines would expand, with the goal of doses available to all adult Americans by the end of May.
The presidential announcement promises to accelerate the pace of Washington state’s vaccine rollout — which of late, has been slowed by the distribution of the federal supply of doses. It could also help open schools more quickly. But the decision shifts state vaccination priorities and leaves some workers among the most at risk watching as educators jump ahead to join seniors in searching for vaccine doses.
“We will continue the current state plans and goals to focus on those most at risk, including older adults and those facing the greatest equity gaps,” Inslee said, adding that he would soon announce when vaccine priority would open to include grocery-store workers, farmworkers, food processors, bus drivers and corrections workers.
These workers — considered essential and at greater risk because they often work in crowded spaces — had previously been included in vaccination tiers alongside educators.
Promises of new federal supply and access to vaccines will add new pressure to the state’s newly built mass vaccination infrastructure.
State officials in January set a statewide goal of performing 45,000 vaccinations a day, hoping to protect about 70% of Washington’s adult population by summer’s end.
By the end of February, vaccine providers were inoculating 37,481 people each day, according to a seven-day average reported on the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard.
Fewer than half of Washington residents age 65 and older had received a first dose of vaccine by the end of last month, according to state data. Educators will now join those seniors seeking to schedule shots.
Biden’s announcement answers months of calls from teachers unions here and across the country advocating for educators to be vaccinated before teaching in person. Unlike states such as Minnesota, New York and West Virginia, a majority of Washington’s teachers have yet to receive a dose.
School districts in Washington state have been among the slowest in the country to reopen to a broader set of students as they remain locked in labor negotiations. Vaccines aren’t the only factor at issue, but education officials seemed hopeful at the news.
“This should bring a huge sense of relief for educators who have been working in-person for weeks or months,” said Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union. “For those districts still working … to ensure the safest possible return to classrooms, this important layer of protection, when offered in concert with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the state Department of Health, and Labor and Industries safety requirements, should help build trust and confidence for a return to in-person learning.”
Just last week, a group of state lawmakers from Seattle tried to lobby state and city officials to speed up the process for educators as Seattle Public Schools and its teachers union remained at an impasse over reopening.
“Ah man, that’s fabulous,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, when informed of Biden’s directive. “This is optimistic news.”
Inslee and other state officials have acknowledged the need to vaccinate educators, but hadn’t heeded advocates’ calls to bump them up in the priority queue. About 153,000 adults work in Washington schools, including about 68,000 teachers.
Access to more vaccines could speed students’ return to school buildings, said officials in the state’s education department. Only 30% of the state’s schoolchildren are currently learning in person.
In January, the state announced a partnership with Kaiser Permanente that would help educators avoid long waits for a vaccine appointment by creating additional vaccine sites near or on school campuses. It’s unclear how the state’s plan would complement the federal government’s plan to offer educators doses through a retail pharmacy program.
“We’re meeting with health and the governor’s office tomorrow morning to see how it impacts our state, but we don’t know anything in addition to what was shared” by Biden on Tuesday, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The Washington State Department of Health said it had planned to begin vaccinating educators and child care workers within a few weeks, and was working now with partners to support a faster timeline.
“Vaccine supply [for educators] will likely primarily be delivered through the federal pharmacy program,” the department said in a news release.
The Biden directive causes concerns for other groups of frontline workers in Washington, as they see their position moved down in the list.
Seafood industry workers have been buffeted by coronavirus outbreaks that have cropped up in offshore factory ships and shoreside processing plants. Farmworkers and food-processing workers who harvest and process the state’s crops also have been at risk.
Employers of both groups have fought to get Washington state to put a greater focus on getting these workers vaccinated.
Erik Nicholson, an Eastern Washington consultant involved with farmworker labor issues, said he had been hopeful that all farmworkers and food-processing workers could start to get vaccinated within a few weeks’ time.
“We tried mightily to get the farmworkers elevated, and we prevailed,” Nicholson said. “Now, the question is how far back down the list do they go?”
Some farms and orchards already are bringing guest workers from Mexico and other countries for pruning and winter work under the H-2A temporary visa program. Currently, these workers all are being tested for the virus before they are lodged in labor camps and start their employment. But they have yet to get vaccinations, according to Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, which assists in bringing in these workers.
“They are living in congregant housing. That is why it is so vital we get them vaccinated,” Fazio said. “The guys have friends and relatives here, and if they visit them, they could bring back the virus.”
Grocery employees are also moving further back in line.
“We got bumped. It is unfortunate. I know this group has anxiously been waiting to get their vaccination,” said Tammie Hetrick, president of the Washington Food Industry Association. “I also understand getting kids back to school.”
The Seattle City Council passed legislation in January requiring large grocery stores to pay $4 an hour to employees for hazard pay. Hetrick bristled at the idea that grocers would be required by government to pay extra for a concern the government could fix with vaccine access.
“If you’re going to claim we’re a hazardous industry and claim hazard pay, then do something about it,” Hetrick said, who added that “stores are pretty safe.” Last month, the grocery industry sued Seattle over the legislation.
Faye Guenther, the president of UFCW 21, a labor union representing grocery workers, pushed back on Biden’s plan, arguing that grocery workers continue to face “enormous” risks that continue as concerning mutations of the coronavirus spread.
After a slow and rocky rollout, the statewide pace of vaccination has improved over the past month, as Washington health officials added vaccine providers, launched web sites to connect those eligible to doses and established mass vaccination sites. About 80% of the doses delivered to Washington state have been administered, according to state data.
But more recently it became clear that gaps had developed in vaccinating people in some communities of color, and the state turned its focus toward equity, one of the guiding principles of its vaccine effort from the beginning.
State officials have hoped to stem the disproportionate harm to communities of color nationwide from the coronavirus through vaccines. Prioritizing front-line workers, who are often people of color, was one way to achieve that goal.
The first stages of the vaccine rollout in Washington prioritized health workers and Washington residents over 65, who are predominantly white.
The decision to next prioritize teachers — who in Washington are 86.8% white —before frontline workers, like farm laborers and grocery workers, who are often not, further clouds the state’s mission to provide equitable access to vaccination.
The department said it remained committed to vaccinating “all Washingtonians as quickly and equitably as possible.”
Biden’s promise Tuesday was enabled by the federal emergency authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and a partnership agreement brokered by the White House for Merck, a competitor, to produce doses of the shot. Washington expects nearly 61,000 Johnson & Johnson doses to be delivered this week. Supply will soar later this spring.
If Biden’s Tuesday announcement about expanded supply holds true — concern over priority lines could fade fast. And in just a few months, the state will no longer have any role as gatekeeper to vaccine, but instead be tasked with enticing as many adults as possible through clinic doors.
Seattle Times staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.