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State officials hopeful health care workers won’t quit, get fired

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | September 30, 2021 1:05 AM

SPOKANE — Citing rising vaccination rates, state public health officials are hopeful large numbers of health care workers will not quit or be fired once Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandatory vaccination deadline is reached on Oct. 18.

“I’m hopeful we will not see folks leave professions that are difficult to recruit for and retain,” said Washington State Department of Health Secretary Umair Shah during an online press briefing Wednesday morning. “I’m hoping to avert a crisis in Washington.”

Shah said around 76% of Washington state residents older than 12 have been vaccinated, a 26% increase since mid-August, though he added more than 1.5 million people eligible have still not been vaccinated.

In early August, Inslee issued a proclamation ordering all state workers, teachers, and health care workers to be fully immunized against COVID-19 by Oct. 18. Given that it takes two weeks for the shots to become effective, the last date to receive a final vaccine dose is Monday.

Employees can also seek a religious or medical accommodation allowing them not to receive any of the three COVID-19 vaccines, which must be on file by Oct. 18.

Shah said he understood the governor as imposing “a condition of employment” on the workers covered in his proclamation, and he does not expect many people to be put on administrative leave Oct. 19.

However, Shah noted some labor unions have negotiated modifications to some of the governor’s proclamations with an ability to work if they can maintain an adequate distance from other workers, customers and clients.

“Potentially some will not be let go,” Shah said.

DOH Acting Assistant Secretary Michelle Roberts said the department does not have a count of the number of health care workers who have decided not to get vaccinated, but expects at some point to hear more from the state’s employers.

“You will not be able to work in person on Oct. 19 if you do not have an accommodation in place,” she said.

A number of public employees, including Washington State Fire Marshal Charles LeBlanc, have sued Inslee in Walla Walla County Superior Court over the mandate, claiming it does not provide for a testing alternative.

In response to a reporter’s question on the effect a possible federal government shutdown might have, Lacey Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response, said the state’s major public health work would continue, since many of the programs have been funded by federal grants.

“We may lose some access to some federal employees,” she said. “But we have a plan if there is a government shutdown.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.