State of emergency set to end Oct. 31, but COVID-19 vaccine mandate is permanent


Washington Gov. Jay Inslee might be ending his state of emergency and rescinding all remaining COVID-19 emergency proclamations in October, but that won’t take away the COVID-19 vaccine mandate on some state employees. The requirement, as well as the government implication that unvaccinated people are hazardous to others’ health, is a COVID-19 hangover that won’t be going away.

The  COVID-19-era Inslee policy caused severe harm to individuals and families, and it damaged public services in our state for no demonstrable public health benefit. There are two states with lower COVID-19 death rates than Washington that did not have vaccine mandates. Two other states beating us had less strict mandates that allowed for testing alternatives. Further, most people dying from or with COVID-19 are not of working age. 

Inslee’s vaccine mandate is the nation’s strictest — and it’s permanent. Inslee made sure to arrange for this dictate to continue after the state of emergency was called off with a June 30 directive that was later amended in labor negotiations. (Read more about that here. That story continues to develop.) 

The amended directive says he is requiring a permanent COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment for state executive and small cabinet agencies. It includes new employees, in addition to all the current employees who didn’t get fired because of the vaccine mandate enforced in the fall — after we knew both unvaccinated and vaccinated people could spread and contract COVID-19

Meanwhile, more private companies that had vaccine mandates for employees are bringing the requirement to a quiet end. They are reading the room and understanding the COVID-19 situation. “[Companies] decided that the rationale for [mandates] had become weak enough that they don’t want to continue,” Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson, told Axios. Boeing dropped its vaccine requirement in 2021, the story reports.

Employers are trying to reduce barriers to entry for new hires. Inslee should be leading the way. Vaccine mandates are a barrier that shouldn’t exist, given what we know about COVID-19 and the vaccines’ limitations. 

The rationale for a vaccine mandate as a condition of employment was always weak. At this point, it’s embarrassing. Vaccines are lowering death from COVID-19. Mandates aren’t. Gov. Inslee should be sending apology letters and offering to hire back workers who were impacted. It might help some of the people whose careers with the state ended abruptly. It would also help rebuild the state workforce and end the discriminatory practice of excluding unvaccinated job applicants.  

Eventually, the governor might need to defend his authority to make a COVID-19 vaccine mandate permanent in court. It’s not clear to me or others looking at this from a legal angle where that authority is found. The Legislature should address the issue in its next session and save us a court fight. 

Right now, the Office of Financial Management is making rules for the governor’s directive mandating the vaccine. In its proposal, under a section titled, “Reasons supporting proposal,” it says, "The vaccination requirements set forth in these proposed rules will help establish and maintain a healthy and safe work environment to protect the welfare of all state employees.” The statutory authority for adoption cited is RCW 41.06.133 and RCW 41.06.150

A hearing for the rulemaking will be on Zoom at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 27.  See this document for the link to attend. Public comments are due to by midnight on Sept. 20.

Inslee said in his press release about the end of his state of emergency, “I can’t express enough how grateful I am for all the health care workers, public health teams, and other frontline workers who have helped save thousands of lives during the past two years ….” Yet he fired many of them for lack of a shot that doesn’t stop the spread of a virus in a mandate that was enforced after we knew about vaccine limitations. 

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