New mandates regarding vaccines for teachers and the wearing of masks indoors are burdensome and undoubtedly will generate some pushback. But they also are a reminder of the toll taken by COVID-19 and the threat that remains, representing difficult but necessary steps to bolster public health.
Gov. Jay Inslee last week announced new measures to combat the disease, requiring face masks for all indoor public spaces regardless of vaccination status, and saying that all teachers and staff must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. School personnel who decline vaccinations can be fired.
“This is a serious issue,” Inslee said. “This is not some suggestion or a whimsical idea we’re floating. It’s a job requirement and people will be held to account by loss of job if they cannot come into compliance.”
Unlike several states, Inslee did not provide the option of frequent coronavirus testing for teachers who decline to be vaccinated. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown soon followed with a similar mandate, matching Washington for the most stringent in the nation. The only exceptions in either state are for medical or religious reasons.
The Washington Education Association quickly embraced Inslee’s requirement. “We must do everything we can to reduce the possibility of COVID transmission in our schools,” WEA president Larry Delaney said. “By vaccinating staff, we reduce the possibility of infecting those who cannot be vaccinated, including our students under 12 years old,”
Inslee has long received political support from education organizations. The Washington Education Association’s PAC donated the maximum of $4,000 to his 2020 reelection campaign.
Increasing infection rates show the need for the latest mandates. On Wednesday, Clark County Public Health reported 1,171 new infections over the previous week – nearly five times the number of weekly infections from a month prior. Statewide, the Washington State Hospital Association said hospital beds were nearly at capacity, with record numbers of COVID patients being hospitalized.
Despite that dire outlook, resistance to the vaccines remains. Now, Inslee has placed school administrators in the difficult position of enforcing the mandates.
State Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, said it is “wrong for the governor to force caring, experienced and dedicated educators to get a vaccination or have their jobs, livelihoods and dreams ripped away from them.” Even as Inslee made his announcement in a conference room, protesters could be heard inside the capitol chanting, “We do not consent!”
That is a harbinger of the difficulty ahead. While protecting students – and allowing schools to remain open full-time – is essential, allowing frequent testing in lieu would have been more politically expedient. And Inslee could have eased the political tension by directly involving the Legislature in the process.
That being said, it now is the duty of teachers in Washington’s public, charter and private schools to be vaccinated against COVID-19. From the beginning of the outbreak, Inslee has promised to follow the latest science in fighting the virus, and the science demonstrates that vaccines are safe and our most effective defense against the disease.
The governor and state health officials are not enacting new rules just to tweak the noses of naysayers; they are taking sensible measures to slow a disease that has contributed to more than 6,000 deaths in Washington and has disrupted the lives of all.
That calls for stringent measures, regardless of how uncomfortable they make us.