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Dec. 5, 2021

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Employee vaccination rates are high at Washington state’s public universities

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There is high anticipation over whether Washington State University will allow its head football coach, the highest paid state employee, to bypass getting a coronavirus vaccine by qualifying for a religious exemption.

Among Coach Nick Rolovich’s 437 colleagues at WSU who have also sought a religious exemption, 22% have been successful as of Oct. 6, according to university records.

But they appear to be a small minority. At WSU and the state’s five other institutions of higher learning, the vaccination rate for employees as of midweek last week was high — ranging from 88% (at least partially vaccinated) on the low end at WSU to 98% on the high end at the University of Washington and The Evergreen State College.

Last week, Washington’s public universities rushed to reconcile the vaccination statuses of their workers, and got ready to cut ties with those who miss Monday’s deadline to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for government workers.

The number of vaccinated university employees fall within ranges reported by other state agencies earlier this month, including the state’s largest agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, which reported 91% of its employees had been vaccinated.

Several colleges were hesitant to identify exactly how many employees they may need to terminate for failing to comply. Those who could risk losing their jobs include employees who do not submit proof of vaccination and weren’t granted a medical and religious exemption.

Based on data requested by The Seattle Times and posted on university websites, at least 1,000 public university employees at the state’s five public universities and one public college (Evergreen) may fall into this category.

This week, the University of Washington sent pre-termination notices to 677 of its nonteaching employees, said university spokesperson Victor Balta. Several dozen faculty members still haven’t complied with the order, and will be put on unpaid leave after Monday until a termination decision is finalized. During that time, faculty members may voice their reasoning to the university either in writing or in a meeting.

The UW has more than 50,000 employees, 98% of whom are in compliance with the order.

Some could be waiting until the last moment to verify their status. The past few weeks have brought some increases in the numbers, the universities report, as has been the case with other agencies subject to the mandate.

During a meeting with faculty earlier this month, UW President Ana Marie Cauce said she found the number of faculty who had yet to verify their vaccination status — still above 200 last week — “disturbing.” By Wednesday, the number had dropped to 70.

“We’re certainly pleased with the high numbers of vaccinated folks,” said Balta. “The goal was never to have people need to lose their jobs over this, and we understand it can be a very difficult process.”

In most cases, the institutions are planning to immediately fire only employees who show no indication they are willing to comply with the mandate. At Central Washington University, where around 112 people have yet to be verified for compliance, there will be some wiggle room for those who, for example, are waiting for a second shot.

“Our goal is not to terminate, and take the opportunity to educate people about the science,” said Gail Mackin, associate vice provost for CWU.

While there isn’t a statewide mandate for vaccination among public college students, all the schools — which issued their own mandates for students — reported at least half of those enrolled had verified their vaccination status. The deadlines for doing so vary, and the consequences for not doing so are less immediate; in several cases, such as at the UW, students who don’t verify by the college’s deadline will have a hold placed on their registration for winter term classes.

So far, at Western Washington University, 99% of students registered for in-person classes were vaccinated; at Central Washington University, 57% had verified their vaccination status; at UW and Eastern Washington University 80% of students; at Evergreen, around 93%. At Washington State University, overall vaccination numbers among students are unclear.

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