Anyone in a public indoor place will have to put their masks back on regardless of their vaccination status, and those working in educational institutions and child care will have to get their shots to keep their jobs, as part of the latest statewide measures announced Wednesday.
During a press conference on Aug. 18, Gov. Jay Inslee, alongside Washington State Superintendent for Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and Washington State Secretary of Health Umair Shah, announced the new requirements.
The indoor mask mandate goes into effect Aug. 23 and applies to all individuals indoors in public settings. Exemptions include vaccinated workers in office spaces not easily accessible by the public, those who work alone or in a vehicle without face-to-face public interaction, and for small, private indoor gatherings where everyone is vaccinated.
K-12 school educators, staff, coaches, bus drivers and other positions that work in school facilities, as well as employees in higher education and most child care and early learning providers will be required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 as a requirement of employment, Inslee announced. Those affected effectively have until Oct. 4 to receive their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or sole dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, to comply. Those caring for family, friends and neighbors are not subject to the requirement.
For both K-12 and higher education, students are not subject to the vaccination requirement.
The vaccine mandate is estimated to affect 140,000 in K-12 education, 118,000 in early learning and child care, and 90,000 in higher education. Similar to the vaccine requirement for state government employees announced the week prior, Inslee said there were limited exemptions for legitimate medical reasons and sincerely held religious beliefs. There also would not be any opt-out scenario where affected employees could receive regular COVID-19 testing in lieu of the vaccine.
“We are well past the point where testing is enough to keep people safe. We’ve tried it. It has not been adequate (for) the task at hand,” Inslee said.
The mandate comes as disease activity has increased statewide. Inslee said the state recently broke the record for hospitalizations that was previously set in December.
“These vaccines are incredibly effective, amazingly effective. They are a medical miracle,” Inslee said.
He added more than 95 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state were among those who were not vaccinated, and that he was “convinced” that without the vaccine requirements the state would continue to be susceptible to new variants of the virus.
Reykdal was in full support of the vaccine mandate, having pushed for it the week prior as a way to avoid shuttering school buildings again.
“We know we can open our schools, and keep them open, and keep our students and staff safe,” Reykdal said, though the state would have to change its procedure as the delta variant has taken over disease activity.
“Delta’s not alpha,” Reykdal said, which was the dominant variant of the virus when schools began to open back up in the spring.
Shah said recent statistics show the variant makes up about 98 percent of new COVID-19 cases, adding the disease reproductive number is well above one, which means transmission is increasing.
“Our goal here is safety first and foremost, and retaining the opening of our schools, and keeping them open,” Reykdal said.
He asked those working in schools to “step up again” to ensure students will remain in buildings.
“You are creating the buffer and the protection for young people and your peers,” Reykdal said. Prolonged closures of buildings would have impacts on students’ learning, he said, and school district jobs like bus drivers, similar to what was seen previously in the pandemic. It would also impact parents who had to care for their children while they learned at home.
“These are job criteria, so if you do not comply, you will no longer be employed by the affected entities you are working for,” Inslee said.
He said the discharge process would happen in the following “days, not months” after the Oct. 4 deadline for employees to receive their last shot. He added the vast majority of those discharged would not be eligible for unemployment.
“It is our hope, and I think a grounded belief, that once people think about this, they’re going to choose to stay in these incredibly important careers. These are dedicated people,” Inslee said. “There’s simply no reason to abandon a career when you’ve got a safe, effective vaccine available to you.”
Reykdal noted the masking and vaccination requirements for schools are within the state’s authority as a public health matter, not a decision based on local school districts’ determinations.
“Please take your respectful civil discourse where it belongs and local school boards are not that place. Let them operate school under the law,” Reykdal said, adding any criticism of the measures should be directed at state officials.
Inslee echoed that sentiment.
“The school boards or the principals are not the place to take complaints, because they do not have authority to alter this requirement,” Inslee said. “My office is the right place to direct them to.”
Shah said there were 2 million Washingtonians older than 12 who have not started their vaccine series. Though there had been a 20 percent increase in vaccinations in the past few weeks, he said it wasn’t enough to combat the pandemic.
The effect of a higher vaccination rate would take time, and requiring masks once again for all indoor settings will have a more immediate effect, Shah said.
“We hope this is an interim step and one that can be lifted as soon as we see things turning around. That time, unfortunately, is not today,” Shah said.
Inslee said the initial loosening of masking requirements came at a time when vaccination rates were increasing and case counts were decreasing rapidly, though now cases and hospitalizations are “exploding,” he said.
Those younger than 5 years old, or who have medical reasons, will not have to comply with the mask mandate, the governor said.
Although masks are recommended but not required for outdoor settings where close contact with others is likely, Inslee said instituting a mandate for those settings — and other measures — aren’t off the table in the future.
“We’re going as far as we are today, but this may not be the end of our efforts if this pandemic continues,” Inslee said.
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