Mandates and missions: How local organizations are gearing up for vaccine deadline

Gov. Inslee says many government workers must be vaccinated by Oct. 18. What will that look like?

The word that keeps coming up is “dynamic.”

That’s how several local officials are describing the situation around COVID-19, from the virus’ activity itself, to the mandates, guidance and rules around controlling it.

The situation changes so quickly, the news is sometimes out of date by the time it hits readers’ hands.

For now, the clock is ticking for many public sector employees — including teachers, firefighters and state employees — to decide whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine, seek an accommodation, or find another place to work.

Governor Jay Inslee last month issued two proclamations requiring those workers, as well as private sector healthcare employees, to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. Exemptions for medical and religious reasons exist, and some workers are sure to claim them. But many agencies will shed employees, too.

Since someone is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their final dose, employees have until about October 4 to get either one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

For some of those department’s leaders, managing the mandate is a tough balancing act: They want to keep their employees and the public healthy, and vaccinating greatly reduces the risk of developing serious illness from catching the coronavirus. On the other hand, firing a chunk of their loyal workforce — especially with labor shortages already gripping many industries — isn’t an appealing thought.

Here’s how various agencies on the Enumclaw Plateau are navigating these uncertain waters.

Firefighters and EMTs

Dawn Judkins, deputy chief and PIO at Mountain View Fire and Rescue, said they’re abiding by the mandate in the most diplomatic way they can. (Mountainview F&R has stations in Auburn, Kent, Enumclaw and Black Diamond.) Still, the legal reality seems clear, at least for the employed firefighters.

While staff have the choice of whether to get vaccinated, the department can’t let them provide medical care without an EMT license. They can’t keep their EMT license if they don’t get the vaccine, according to the agency’s attorney. And as part of the collecting bargaining agreement, they have to be an EMT as part of their job description.

By process of deduction, the answer is clear, Judkins said: To remain an employee, they’ll have to be vaccinated.

On that front, the department is ahead of the curve. One-hundred percent of Mountainview career staff there are vaccinated, as are about 75 to 80 percent of volunteer firefighters, Judkins said. All of the agency’s commissioners and administrative staff, including herself, are vaccinated, she said.

They’ll be honoring exemptions, but at this point there doesn’t seem to be a way for volunteers to keep volunteering at the department if they’re not vaccinated, Judkins said.

The agency is already at a minimum staffing level, so any additional losses will have an impact, Judkins said. Hiring someone new involves a year of academy training, so getting new folks in short notice is very difficult. So they’re encouraging vaccination and doing what they can to reduce COVID exposure.

“At this point, our stations are closed again to the public and masks are required for all our personnel at work, (with) daily screenings,” Judkins said. “We’re already encountering a little more of a COVID impact earlier than we did last year, as we head into fall, and we’re trying to avoid that as best we can.”

Meanwhile, Enumclaw Fire Chief Randy Fehr said the department is in a good shape to weather the Oct. 18 deadline with “minimal” operational impacts, thanks to the department’s high vaccination rate. The majority of the department – around 95 percent – is vaccinated, Fehr said.

They’ll work to accommodate employees and volunteers legally, Fehr said, but the directive seems “fairly cut-and-dry.”

“At this point we’re planning on all of our people being vaccinated, otherwise they can’t really work in operations,” Fehr said.

One idea has come up at a handful of fire departments: If some staff won’t take the vaccine, why not delegate them to handle only fire calls, rather than higher-infection-risk medical events?

That appears to be an option at the Buckley Fire Department, which has 75 volunteer firefighters, EMTs and paramedics and only four full-time staff members, according to Chief Eric Skogen.

Skogen said he won’t compromise the effectiveness of the department by getting rid of any resources or personnel. Unvaccinated members of the department will be encouraged to get the vaccine, and the department will comply full with the mandate.

That mostly-volunteer makeup affords flexibility that other departments may not have, Skogen said. So unvaccinated volunteers who don’t receive exemptions or accommodations may be reassigned to non-patient care or firefighting-only roles, he said.

“As has been my stance, I strongly encourage every member to take every precaution he or she feels necessary in order to maintain a safe and effective force,” Skogen said in an email. “Having recently recovered from COVID-19 myself, the virus is very real and prevalent on the Plateau.”

The department won’t know until they get closer to the deadline, but roughly 25 to 35 percent are not yet vaccinated, Skogen said. That’s a number that will likely continue to change as some of those members decide either to get the vaccine, seek an exemption or seek another option.

Skogen declined to discuss specifics on his own vaccination status, but said that he plans to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s safe to do so. (Those who contract COVID before getting the vaccine should wait until they have fully recovered and no longer need to isolate before receiving the vaccine, according to the CDC.)

He said it’s unfortunate that the divisions over the virus are causing people – including his own firefighters – to feel any shame or embarrassment over their decision to take the vaccine one way or another.

“It’s unfortunate what the virus is doing, but it’s even more unfortunate what it’s doing to people,” Skogen said. “People already feel an immense invasion, and people don’t want to share they’re vaccinated or not.”

At Enumclaw, legal and practical questions remain even for hired firefighter / EMTs who receive a perfectly legal and proper exemption to receiving the vaccine, Fehr said, given so much of the work is medical calls.

“While I respect people have the legal right to get those waivers, and we’re going to work with them on that, I’m just not certain that we’re going to be able to accommodate them in operations at all,” Fehr said. “Right now, the guidance isn’t super clear, and we hope it becomes more clear … I’m still working with legal on that, so I don’t have a firm answer.”

Fehr is vaccinated and he’s proud of his firefighters who are as well, but has no “bad feelings” toward those who don’t. It’s their personal choice, he said.

“It’s just a hard spot to be in, because you care a lot about people and the commitment they put into the community,” Fehr said. “It’s a decision that the department didn’t make, one that was made by elected officials, and every indication we’ve been given is, we believe that to be a lawful order.”

Back to school

Employee vaccination numbers at the White River School District are changing day-by-day, said assistant superintendent Scott Harrison, so specific numbers aren’t there yet as staff are still getting vaccinated ahead of the deadline to do so. The “vast, vast majority” of the district’s leadership is vaccinated, Harrison said.

That said, from bus drivers to cooks to educators and support staff, “any loss will have a significant impact on our daily operations,” Harrison said.

“We have a pretty good sense of what the impact would be, and it’s significant,” Harrison said. “It’s a major area of concern. We share that with all of our neighboring districts as well. We’re not alone.”

So far, they’ve been able to head off those problems. While some districts are suffering labor shortages among bus drivers, for instance, Harrison said White River avoided that pitfall in part by choosing not to furlough their drivers last year.

“We’ve been able to retain the vast majority of them,” Harrison said. “It’s tight, but we’re covering our routes.”

The Enumclaw School District is similarly still collecting vaccination data, spokesperson Jessica McCartney said, as well as making it clear to staff when and how they can get vaccinated or seek an exemption. The district plans to comply with the mandate, she said.

McCartney said she couldn’t predict how much of an effect losing unvaccinated staff will have on the district, but “even the loss of one of our staff members … has an impact,” she said.

Nonetheless, the health and safety of staff and students remains their top priority she said, along with making sure kids are learning. It’s the same at White River, Harrison said.

“We have faced significant challenges every step of the way with regard to COVID and how to navigate (the challenges it poses) while remaining true to our mission of providing high level learning for all students,” Harrison said. “That is our focus as well. I am confident we will find creative solutions to these very challenging and unique problems that meet the needs of our students, our community, our staff and [which] are true to our mission.”

St. Elizabeth Hospital

Healthcare facilities around the state are pinched between high COVID rates and a shortage of healthcare workers, and St. Elizabeth in Enumclaw isn’t immune to those forces.

“Like other hospitals across Washington, we are experiencing high hospital and emergency department patient volumes, and a significant spike in COVID-19 cases,” a spokesperson for St. Elizabeth said in an email. “This is in combination with a severe staffing shortage in health care throughout our region and our country.”

That being said, those in a medical emergency shouldn’t delay care – call 911 or head immediately to the closest emergency room, the hospital said said.

The vast majority of hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated, according to the hospital. The Virginia Mason Franciscan hospital system requires vaccination for all employees at their facilities, including St. Elizabeth.

“The best thing the community can do to keep themselves and our health care workers safe is to receive the vaccine if they have not done so already,” said Renee Espinosa, Chief Operating Officer of St. Elizabeth Hospital, in an email. “St. Elizabeth Hospital is continuing to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state guidance to prevent infections. We encourage the community to follow masking and public health guidance and receive the vaccine.”

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