Inslee rolls back COVID vaccine mandate for WA state employees

The move was one of the governor’s most controversial pandemic orders as nearly 2,000 Washington employees opted out of getting the jab.

A picture of Gov. Jay Inslee in his office at the Capitol building in Olympia, Washington.

Gov. Jay Inslee is interviewed at the Washington State Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Washington Gov. Inslee will lift an order requiring state workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, his office announced Wednesday. The order had been one of the nation’s strictest public-health measures.

The decision ends a directive originally put in place in August 2021, as the Delta wave of the virus began to build.

Polarization over vaccines at that point drew thousands of protesters to the Capitol campus in Olympia. The vaccine requirement covered more than 60,000 state workers, and for the most part did not allow them to opt out by getting regular testing or working remotely.

Nearly 1,800 state workers – from Washington State Patrol troopers to state ferry employees and prison staff – left their jobs or were fired rather than take the vaccine. Conservatives criticized the vaccine requirement for causing staffing shortages to those and other government services.

The rollback, which takes effect Thursday, lines up with the end of the federal government’s COVID-19 public emergency declaration, according to a statement from Inslee’s office.

“For more than three years, we have all faced incredible challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted every aspect of our lives,” Inslee said. “Throughout this public health crisis, our state employee family demonstrated inspiring resilience and dedication, and I thank our employees for their exemplary service under unprecedented circumstances.”

Last October, Inslee ended Washington state’s COVID-19 emergency order. That’s the order that allowed the governor to impose some of the nation’s strictest pandemic public-health restrictions – and drew loud resistance from conservatives. But the governor issued an updated order last August that kept the vaccine mandate in place.

Washington state, however, saw some of the lowest deaths per capita from the virus. At least 16,151 Washingtonians have died of the virus as of May, according to state Department of Health data.

The pandemic persists, though the number of vaccinated people combined with the natural immunity individuals have gotten from contracting the virus has reduced the number of ongoing fatalities and stress on the hospital system.

The state Office of Financial Management, which had to bargain with public-sector unions over the requirements when the governor put them in place, must now sit back down with labor to discuss the changes, according to Inslee’s office.

The new two-year state budget set to be signed by Inslee includes incentives for state workers to maintain COVID-19 vaccinations, according to his office, with a $1,000 incentive payment for workers who show proof of booster shots.

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