On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that Washington’s nearly three-year state of emergency would end on the last day of October.
What will not end is his rule that state workers be vaccinated against COVID-19.
It’s time for that to change. It’s time for Gov. Inslee to drop the vaccination requirement for state employees.
When he instituted that rule a year ago, Inslee said it was necessary to keep state workers from infecting others with the virus.
That was, briefly, a legitimate hope for the vaccine. But as time went on we learned that while the vaccine was effective at reducing hospitalizations and death, it wasn’t a silver bullet at preventing infection transmission.
In short, vaccinated people are much more likely to survive, but could still be infectious.
Now, the governor has changed his justification about why the COVID-19 vaccine will still be required for state workers.
“We want to have healthy people so that people don’t miss work,” Inslee said, noting that the vaccine mandate will be a workplace rule for state government employees, not an emergency requirement.
“Sometimes we have to tie up a ferry boat because somebody’s got COVID,” Inslee continued. “We need them to be there. We care about them individually but we also care about them being able to do their job and provide services.”
That’s a puzzling argument to make, for a couple of reasons.
First, while the vaccine helps reduce the length of sickness and the risk of serious complications, I have plenty of vaccinated friends who have recently gotten “I wish I were dead” level sick from COVID-19. After a few days or a week, they were back on their feet, but they still missed work.
More important, though, is the fact that the state continues to be down a lot of workers in important divisions a year after the vaccine mandate was implemented. The Washington State Patrol, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the state ferry system are all unable to fill key roles.
For instance, 5.9 percent of WSDOT staff agency-wide left the department or were relieved of duty because of the state vaccine mandate, according to a November 2021 WSDOT blog post. A third of them were in the ferry system, which immediately cut back sailings when the vaccine mandate hit and 132 workers left or were fired.
In fact, the state ferry system is still short of workers in part because the COVID vaccine requirement, a ferry spokesman told KING-5 news in July.
Ending the vaccine mandate would help the state government hire the workers it needs.
But more than that, it would help heal a wound that tore into the heart of communities across Washington.
For me, this is personal.
My brother, Todd, was a longtime employee of the Washington State Department of Transportation. The third generation of our family to work for the highway department, he is a highly respected civil engineer whose work can be seen on roads and bridges across the state. He and our father even sang the national anthem at the 2019 WSDOT Worker Memorial Day ceremony in Olympia.
Todd also was strongly opposed to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine — so much so that he and his wife sold their newly built dream home in rural Centralia and moved their family across the country in the dead of winter so he could take a job in Tennessee.
Washington state lost a darn good engineer and a great family because of the vaccination mandate. While I don’t agree with my brother’s reasoning for opposing the vaccine, one of his best friends died of COVID-19, so he understood the risks. He is an adult and can make his own choices.
So he did, and our state is the poorer for it.
So am I.
I miss my brother and his family. I want them to come home. Whether he ever would is another question. Ditto for the countless other fine folks I know who left our state for Texas or other parts of the nation without our state’s dictates.
It’s an exodus of largely rural and conservative folks which — if I were conspiratorially minded, which thankfully I’m not — I might be tempted to think was a happy side effect for our Democratic governor.
Ending the state’s vaccine mandate would open the door for the broken bones of our state to begin to knit back together.
It’s ironic that I’m making this argument. I’m as pro-vaccination as a person can be. I’m fully vaccinated against just about everything for which an immunization is available. I’m planning to get the latest COVID-19 booster shot, just as I get an annual flu shot.
My kids are vaccinated and I’m so thankful for the good protection (even if it’s imperfect) our modern medical miracles provide against a range of nasty illnesses.
With all that said, this is the United States of America. The American flag flying outside my front door stands for freedom and solidarity.
In this case, I believe that means standing up for the freedom of my fellow American adults on this contentious issue.
I support vaccination mandates that prevent spread of infectious diseases. When it seemed that the COVID-19 shot could do that, then perhaps the governor’s mandate was justified.
But now that we know the shot is most effective at minimizing the effects of the disease, not preventing a person from spreading it, then the choice needs to revert back to the adult getting the shot, not the guy calling the shots from the governor’s office.
Treat Them as Grown-ups
At his press conference this week, Gov. Inslee spoke proudly about the number of lives saved by his forceful response to the pandemic, and he lamented the people who refused the vaccine and died of COVID-19.
Those are valid points. But now, as the state of emergency ends, the strong medicine that was perhaps necessary in the midst of the pandemic is no longer appropriate.
COVID-19 killed thousands in our state and tore apart the lives of many more. Don’t double down on division. Let’s come back together again.
Let grown men and women decide how they will respond to this endemic virus.
Let the sons and daughters of Washington return home, welcomed as full citizens and valued workers in and for our great state.
Gov. Inslee, it’s time to end the state worker vaccination requirement.
Brian Mittge (and his brother now living in Tennessee) are the fourth generation of Mittges to live and work in Southwest Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.