A health worker vaccinates a man wearing a face mask in a gymnasium.
Vaccination rates have increased following the issuance of employee mandates in Seattle and King County. (Credit: King County Public Health)

The City of Seattle and King County released their final Covid vaccination rates this week as Governor Jay Inslee’s October 18th mandate deadline went into effect, and virtually every department surpassed the 90% mark.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) remains the laggard, but not nearly as badly as had been feared. The agency has reached 92% vaccination rate and City employees 94% overall, the Mayor’s office reports. Only 68% of sworn officers had submitted their forms as of October 10th, but a late surge in paperwork closed the gap. This suggests fewer than 100 officers will face termination for refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate — perhaps much fewer if officers ultimately come around to the benefits of vaccination, if not to themselves and their communities, at least to their livelihoods.

The Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Parks have each reached 95% vaccinated, the Mayor reported, and Seattle Fire Department and Seattle Public Utilities sit at 93%. Overall, 4.6% of the City workforce, which is approximately 11,250 strong, is seeking an accommodation rather than demonstrating proof of vaccination.

King County Metro hits 92% vaccinated, Sherriff’s office at 86.7%

Meanwhile, 96.8% of the county workforce compiled with the mandate, with 92.3% reported fully vaccinated, according to figures release by the County Executive.

“I am pleased to announce that 97% of employees complied with my Executive Order by becoming fully vaccinated or being in the accommodation process. Approximately 4.5% of these are going through the accommodation process,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.

That leaves 3% who refused to comply with the requirement to either prove vaccination or prove grounds for an exemption, such as religious or health reasons. 14,280 County employees are covered by the mandate, Constantine spokesperson Chase Gallagher said. “This updated number does not include 396 employees on extended leave who will need to comply upon return to work,” he noted in the release.

Fears of a severe driver shortage at King County Metro due to the mandate appear to have been assuaged. Ninety-six out of 2,614 Metro operators refused to comply and 119 sought an exemption. That equates to a vaccination rate of 92%.

“Seattle has the lowest cases, hospitalizations, and deaths of every major city while having one of the highest vaccinations rate because we have followed the science and advice of public health officials. Vaccines keep our children, colleagues, and community safe,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement.

Most City employees had extra incentives (including eight hours paid time off) to prove they were vaccinated by October 5th, because their respective unions bargained for these perks, but the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) refused to accept the deal that every other major public sector union accepted. That means those benefits do not apply to police officers — unless SPOG does belatedly sign a deal. Excepting the SPOG-represented, employees who submitted their proof after October 5th still qualify for significant benefits, including up to 80 hours of supplementary Covid-related sick leave. Additionally, frontline workers on staff after Aug. 1, 2021 and performing in-person work could get a one-time payment of up to $1,750. The Seattle City Council approved the benefits package last Monday and the Mayor signed the legislation.

Last chance to comply and police force impacts

Both the Mayor and County Executive said employees who refused to comply risk termination. The Mayor’s office did suggest unvaccinated employees may be given one more chance to get the jab to avoid losing their jobs.

“In the coming days, departments will continue to review exemption request, and over the coming weeks, engage in an interactive process with individual employees to determine whether a permanent or temporary reasonable accommodation is available,” the Mayor’s spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said in a statement. “During the separation process, if an employee commits to becoming fully vaccinated, the City may offer a last chance to get vaccinated, depending on the circumstances.” 

The vaccine mandate could interfere with the Mayor’s goal to increase SPD ranks and average 1230 sworn officers next year despite heavy attrition during the past two years, over which time more than 300 officers have departed. Hiring has not been able to keep pace, especially with a pandemic budget crunch causing a City-wide hiring freeze.

The King County Sherriff’s office had 12 sworn officers out of 623 refuse to comply, although 71 did request an exemption and await the result of that process. That puts the vaccination rate at 86.7% for the County Sherriff’s office.

SPOG continues to complain about the mandate even as most of their members comply and promoted an event where unvaccinated officers who allegedly have already been terminated hosted a soup feed for homeless people on Tuesday. Critics quickly noted that these unmasked, unvaccinated officers would jeopardize homeless people’s health at the receiving end of this photo op.

Nonetheless, the event seems to get plenty of attention, at least in some media bubbles. A video capturing the PR stunt by The Post Millennial columnist Katie Daviscourt already has the 1.8 million views. She also filmed police officers and firefighters “turning in their boots” rather than getting vaccinated, opining “These a excellent officers and firefighters with years of service that truly can’t be replaced” in a video with 4 million views. The videos are making the rounds on conservative media, including Fox News.

Seattle’s satirical news site The Needling already seized on the story with their own joke coverage under the headline “Heartwarming: These Unvaccinated First Responders Weren’t Allowed to Spread COVID at Work So They Did It For Free.”

Mandates work

The jump in vaccination rates shows that employer mandates are highly effective at boosting vaccination rates.

“19% of eligible King County residents have not completed their vaccine series as of Oct. 4, according to Public Health Seattle & King County,” KUOW reported earlier this month. The City and County were able to quickly take the Countywide baseline of 81% and added more than 10 points to it via the employee mandate.

President Joe Biden has announced a vaccine mandate for private sector employers with more than 100 employees that provides that alternative of weekly testing for those refusing to comply. That is likely to provide a further boost to vaccination rates. The White House estimates the mandate will affect 80 million private sector workers, with fines of up to $14,000 per violation for firms that fail to comply. Governor Inslee is expected to expand about the President’s mandate, perhaps lowering the threshold to business with 50 employees, and he may also require patrons at restaurants and bars to be vaccinated.

Public universities also fall under the mandate and most are reporting high vaccination rates. Washington State University in Pullman reported the lowest rate at 88% at least partially vaccinated, while the rate was 98% on the high end at the University of Washington and The Evergreen State College, Dahlia Bazzaz of the Seattle Times reported. UW had just 70 out of 50,000 employees fail to file their paperwork. WSU, meanwhile, had the highest profile firing with football coach Nick Rolovich, who is the State’s highest paid employee, refusing the jab and paying the price.

Coach Rolovich is not accepting the termination without a fight and reportedly is filing a lawsuit for discrimination based on his religious beliefs. He has sought an exemption based on his Catholic faith, but a panel, which reviewed the request with identities anonymized, denied it. WSU had 438 employees seek a religious exemption, but has only granted 22% of them thus far, Bazzaz said. While Rolovich believes “devout” Catholic faith could be grounds for a vaccine mandate exemption, Pope Francis seems to disagree. The Pope has encouraged Catholics and folks of all denominations to be vaccinated against Covid, calling it an “act of love.”

Statewide, 62.7% of eligible residents are vaccinated, according to Our World in Data, which ranked 10th among the 50 states in the nation. The top nine are composed of a handful of Northeast states plus New Mexico, and most have implemented vaccine mandates of their own. Puerto Rico had the highest vaccination rate of all.

States, counties, and cities hoping to replicate their success would be wise to follow suit in implementing and enforcing vaccine mandates.

The delta wave of the Covid pandemic continue to persist, but the vaccination surge does seem to be slowly turning the tides. “According to the state Department of Health’s most recent complete coronavirus data, hospitalizations were going down by about 15% per week in early to mid-September after passing the peak of the recent delta wave. In the first week of October, however, hospitalizations had only fallen by about 6% since the previous week — to a seven-day average rate of about 11 hospitalizations per 100,000 people,” the Seattle Times reported.

In total, 8,234 people have died from the pandemic in Washington State, and 10 to 15 Washingtonians continue to die every day, Washington State Hospital Association CEO Cassie Sauer said.

Beyond employer vaccine mandates, the state is also tightening rules around events.

“As of October 25, proof of vaccination will be required in King County for everyone ages 12+ at outdoor events of 500 or more people, indoor recreational events or establishments, restaurants, and bars,” Executive Constantine added in a statement. “Current mask guidance remains in effect. This requirement will help to protect customers, workers, and local businesses, and reduce the strain on our health care system as we move into the colder months.”

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.