New CDC guideline highlights miscalculation in state firing unvaccinated WSDOT employees

Jan 4, 2022

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has again changed COVID guidelines, putting Washington in the position of keeping COVID-positive employees who are vaccinated, after having fired unvaccinated employees who are not infected or have already had COVID.

In mid-October, Governor Inslee and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Secretary Roger Millar fired over 400 employees at WSDOT in order to comply with the Governor’s vaccine mandate. Many employees who submitted requests for a religious or medical exemption to the vaccine were fired even after exemptions had been approved.

The spin from WSDOT communications staff has been confusing and disjointed. WSDOT admits the agency was suffering from a staffing shortage before the layoffs, yet proceeded with layoffs that made the shortage (and its consequences this winter) worse. WSDOT officials have said that though their crews are doing the best they can, the agency cannot provide the same level of service as they did in previous years, which may increase the duration of closures. They also note that it “bums” them out when they “have trucks with no drivers” and “see a resource…we would normally be using, but we can’t use it.” Despite the position they’ve put themselves in, officials now insist that the frequency of road closures have not been due to the agency’s lack of drivers but rather the heavy snow and winds.  

COVID guidelines are fluid, so it’s no surprise that in late December, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued another new guideline that shortened the recommended isolation time for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 – from 10 days to 5 if they aren’t exhibiting symptoms. So, in theory, a vaccinated person who is infected with COVID can go back to work after 5 days, with a mask. 

The CDC said that, “The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after.”

Being vaccinated does not guarantee reduced transmission rates, as evidenced by King County, where infections increased 195% over seven days. King County has some of the highest vaccination rates and the most restrictive policies short of a lockdown.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has noted that the reason for the new CDC guideline “is that with the sheer volume of new cases that we are having and that we expect to continue with Omicron, one of the things we want to be careful of is that we don’t have so many people out...I mean, obviously if you have symptoms you should [be out], but if you are asymptomatic and you are infected we want to get people back to jobs — particularly those with essential jobs to keep our society running smoothly.” This is a remarkable statement in that it’s the first time federal officials have really acknowledged that there are trade-offs that cannot be ignored in balancing COVID safety measures and the ability of people to put food on the table and keep our economy functioning.

Due to political backlash, the CDC was expected to narrow the guideline, perhaps to include a testing component in addition to the new shortened isolation period. But late Tuesday, they doubled down instead, keeping the test optional. 

Governor Inslee’s proclamations have largely reflected CDC guidelines so it will be interesting to see if he changes the current state rules to match the latest guidelines. If the Governor relaxes the current mandate to align with the CDC, officials will have to deal with the reality of allowing vaccinated, infected employees back at work, after having fired unvaccinated, uninfected employees.

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