Vaccination rates rise in Washington DOC, other agencies in response to COVID-19 warrant
Joseph O’Sullivan / The Seattle Times
OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to vaccinate 63,000 government officials against COVID-19 sparked wide outcry from Conservatives, big protests from government officials and court challenges from employees who are at risk of losing their jobs under the warrant.
But if the large Washington agencies are any indication, state employees are largely complying with the mandate to get vaccinated by October 18 or lose their jobs.
The Washington Department of Corrections (DOC), which oversees the state’s 12 prisons, verified that 89% of workers had been vaccinated by noon Thursday, according to a spokesperson. This is a big increase from a few weeks ago, when inmates reported vaccination rates among staff as low as 39%.
The Department of Health and Human Services – Washington’s largest state agency, with nearly 16,000 employees – had verified that 91% of its employees were vaccinated as of Thursday.
The state Department of Transportation, meanwhile, is 93% verified vaccinated Friday morning, and the Washington State Patrol announced on Wednesday that 93% of its workers had been vaccinated.
At the Ministry of Children, Youth and Families, that number rose to nearly 87% on Wednesday, against about 50% three weeks ago.
“I’m cautiously optimistic there,” said Secretary Ross Hunter, whose agency oversees foster care and child protection services. “We think people are making this decision because they care about the safety of their colleagues and genuinely care about the safety of the people we serve.”
Vaccination figures at these and other agencies could increase further in the coming weeks.
To be fully vaccinated by October 18, workers should have received their last vaccine by October 4. But since Inslee issued the orders in August, labor agreements and administration actions have effectively extended the deadline for many state employees.
The numbers dispel the idea that a mass exodus of government workers unwilling to get vaccinated could cripple government services.
Yet state agencies must plan to provide essential services – from running prisons and highway patrols to investigating child abuse and staffing mental hospitals – with fewer workers. Agencies have prepared contingency plans to ensure they could continue essential functions.
State officials and others say they are now considering more isolated scenarios in specific government facilities or in critical functions where departing workers might not be easy to replace.
For Hunter, that potentially means moving staff around to ensure that child protection service investigations can still take place within 24 hours for high-risk situations.
âWe’re going to move the staff around to make that happen,â Hunter said. âWe will have managers who will take on a workload. “
Of particular concern were the Washington State Patrol and DOC. A widespread loss of workers in these departments could have repercussions, undermining public safety and potentially violating civil rights or worsening the conditions of those in detention.
In a statement Friday morning, DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange said the agency “feels very optimistic and encouraged by our vaccination numbers.”
âStaff are very committed to the safety of their colleagues and those in our care and custody,â Strange said in prepared remarks. âCOVID has been tough on everyone, including families and friends. Once we get through this, I have no doubts that a more optimistic new normal will prevail.â
The issues of the day are visible right now, say inmate advocates, with the current outbreak at Clallam Bay Correctional Center, located in the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula.
The outbreak began in August with five correctional officers and has since grown to 55 staff and inmates, according to the Peninsula Daily News, and a local health worker said unvaccinated correctional officers continued to infect members of the community and their own households. .
Amy Crewdson, a lawyer for advocacy group Columbia Legal Services, called the ongoing outbreak “obviously of real concern” and a prime example of why the vaccine’s mandate is needed.
Crewdson worked on a lawsuit where people held by DOC allege state prison and health officials did not do enough to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19. She also fears that staff departures may have an impact on those in prison.
Prisons that lose too many staff could potentially cut educational and religious programs or drug addiction programs.
Since the state’s 12 prisons are located across the state – from Clallam Bay to Washington State Penitentiary to Walla Walla and the Airway Heights Correctional Center in Spokane County – move staff no isn’t necessarily an easy alternative.
âIt’s not like you can say, ‘Oh, someone who works at the penitentiary can just walk up the road to Airway Heightsâ¦ to cover a shift,â she said.
Asked about contingency plans in the event of workers leaving, DOC spokesperson Jacque Coe wrote in an email that “we have enough staff in place to ensure the safety and security of staff and people incarcerated in our custody “.
Part of an emergency plan released by Inslee’s office shows different scenarios that could play out for each of the 12 prisons.
Some institutions, such as the Monroe Correctional Complex, are planning “normal operations with possible reductions in non-essential programs / services.”
Others, like Clallam Bay, could see staff cuts and operations reduced, with potentially restricted travel for those in detention.
The plan, which was dated Oct. 5, when a lower number of DOC workers were verified to be vaccinated, also raised broad concern about a shortage of vaccinated medical staff “amid the chronic vacation of nurses “.
This included Clallam Bay, according to the note, where contingency planning could include “contract nurses, transfer of patients to other facilities, on-site urgent and emergency care only, will depend on community hospitals for treatment. emergency and hospitalization “.
âManageableâ staff losses
Inslee’s emergency orders ordering state and school workers and hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers to get vaccinated or lose their jobs on October 18 have spurred a response from unions and lawsuits, as well as the vaccination of more workers.
“We are still very happy with the direction in which immunization rates are heading,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk wrote in an email.
When the State Patrol announced last week that it had reached its 93% vaccination rate, spokesman Chris Loftis said the improvement would reduce the chances of major disruption.
He described it as “manageable as opposed to restrictive” in terms of road patrolling or other responsibilities assumed by the agency.
âAny loss is significant, but we’re a very large organization spread across the state,â Loftis said. “We therefore hope to be able to deploy our vast resources to ensure that all of our law enforcement responsibilities are met.”
With a vaccination rate of 91%, the Directorate of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is also in a better position than a few weeks ago. Among other things, the agency oversees development aid programs and economic aid, as well as the two state mental hospitals: East State and West State.
These two institutions illustrate how vaccination rates can vary between different parts of the state.
As of Monday, Western State Hospital – the state’s largest mental institution, located in Lakewood, Pierce County – had verified that 92% of its 2,323 employees were vaccinated, according to the DSHS.
On the same day, Eastern State Hospital, located in Spokane County, had 83% of its employees vaccinated out of a workforce of 841.
Asked about contingency plans, DSHS spokesman Tyler Hemstreet wrote in an email that the agency “cannot respond today to what will be in two weeks.”
“We are currently doing contingency planning for the two public hospitals to determine how we are providing patient care and we will not know the exact outcome until the October 18 tenure deadline. We will then review the situation and proceed. accordingly, “he added. .
Hunter, the secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said he was concerned about juvenile rehabilitation facilities in eastern Washington. These institutions help young people serving prison sentences to reintegrate into society, so that they can go to university or find a job.
“If we have to switch to compulsory overtime, we will, I would rather not do it,” he said. “We believe that we will have the staff to cover the situationsâ¦ we will meet our federal staffing requirements necessary to keep the children safe.”
“We can meet them,” he added. “Some other things can actually slow you down.”