Washington’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate doesn’t appear to be taking a heavy toll on staffing at the local level, but the pandemic is still packing a punch to the community’s health.
On Wednesday, several Asotin County employers said there has been some pushback to the mandate, but the majority of people who are required to have proof of vaccination by the Oct. 18 deadline decided to get the shots or seek exemptions. For most, walking away from a paycheck and benefits simply didn’t pencil out.
“None of us like being told what to do, but at the end of the day, if people are putting others at risk, the mandates are needed,” said Dr. Bob Lutz of Asotin County Public Health. “They were not done lightly, and they are making an impact.”
Lutz has served as the local health officer for Asotin County since 2017. While he lives in Spokane, he has worked closely with Brady Woodbury, the administrator of Asotin County Public Health, and other staff to support the pandemic response. His other duties include serving as the medical adviser for COVID-19 at the State Department of Health and serving on the Washington State Board of Health.
“The general mindset in Lewiston is that COVID doesn’t exist, which makes it extremely challenging in Asotin County,” Lutz said. “Many rural communities don’t think they will be impacted, but that’s not the case. At this point, the rates in eastern Washington are approximately twice that of western Washington.”
When people refuse to get vaccinated, Lutz questions whether “this is really the hill to die on, folks? Is it a hill to have other people die on, because of your personal choice?”
Less than 35 percent of Asotin County residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the Washington Department of Health. However, some residents may have gotten their shots in Idaho, so the rate could be closer to the low 40s, which still puts the county in the bottom third of the state in terms of vaccination rates.
With the deadline looming, agencies across the Evergreen state have been dealing with the vaccine issue. Most state workers, as well as hundreds of thousands of private health care and long-term care employees, will be required to show proof of vaccination or face losing their jobs.
However, at Tri-State Memorial Hospital in Clarkston, administrators are not anticipating any staffing shortages because of the vaccine mandate.
Out of approximately 650 employees, eight people have resigned because of the mandate, said spokeswoman Rebecca Mann. “We only have two (current) employees who we consider at risk of not being compliant by Oct. 18.”
Asotin County Fire Chief Noel Hardin said his crew lost one volunteer who resigned over the state’s mandate for emergency medical personnel. The fire district has 46 members, and two religious exemptions were granted, along with one medical exemption. Four others are pending, Hardin said, and everyone else is fully vaccinated.
“It has been a challenge, though,” Hardin said.
At the Clarkston Fire Department, 27 of the 35 members are vaccinated. Four people were granted religious exemptions, and another four were given medical exemptions. Those eight employees will have to wear N-95 masks, undergo weekly COVID-19 tests and follow all protocols in place, Chief Darren White said.
“This matter has been quite contentious throughout the state, but I believe we implemented a great policy and process for handling the governor’s mandate,” White said. “First, we developed a fire department policy outlining how we would be enforcing the requirements of the governor’s proclamation. We then bargained the impacts with our local union, including medical and religious exemptions.”
With the advice of legal counsel, the city established a review committee made up of Clerk Steve Austin, Mayor Monika Lawrence and White to evaluate each person’s “deeply held religious belief,” before making a decision on exemptions, White said. Two were denied.
“Once we made the decision to approve the accommodations, we had those members attest to an affidavit with certain conditions that needed to be met as a condition of continued employment,” the fire chief said. “Those conditions are wearing an N-95 mask, temperature checks and COVID-19 weekly testing, all of which are at no cost to the city.”
The city’s EMS and firefighting crew includes full-time and part-time employees, plus volunteers. The state mandate applies to volunteers, and Idaho residents who provide health care and emergency medical services in Washington.
Idaho’s lack of mandates affects border communities, such as Clarkston, Pullman and Spokane, Lutz said. Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene has a record high of 150 COVID-19 hospitalizations right now, which is almost as many as all four metropolitan Spokane hospitals combined.
“It’s such a shame when we have the means to prevent it,” Lutz said. “People are unaccepting of the fact these vaccines work. All the social media and misinformation has created a huge problem. How do you fight it? People don’t believe the trusted messengers, the science.”
A child from Asotin County is currently battling COVID-19 in a Spokane hospital, Lutz said. While most child cases are less severe than adults, some wind up in the intensive care unit on ventilators.
“We know the delta variant is incredibly aggressive and very transmissible, and it’s not discriminating by age,” Lutz said. “Roughly twice as many kids in eastern Washington currently have the disease, compared to what we’re seeing on the west side. The childhood rates in Asotin County are much higher than we’ve ever seen before.”
Closing Parkway Elementary School in Clarkston last week was “not something we wanted to do. It was something we had to do,” he said.
As for the community at large, those who have chosen not to get vaccinated or wear masks are putting everyone else at risk, Lutz said.
“People have overestimated the risks of the vaccine and significantly underestimated the effects of COVID-19,” Lutz said. “The vaccine is safe and effective. People who develop breakthrough infections aren’t ending up in the hospital. COVID-19 is not the flu, and many people end up with symptoms that may last months.”
Lutz believes the message in the summer that we were moving past the pandemic provided a false sense of security. The delta surge caught everyone by surprise, and the variant is like “COVID-19 on steroids” because it’s more easily transmitted than other strains. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing the results.
Health officials are cautiously optimistic that the delta surge has peaked. The curve is flattening, very slowly, Lutz said. However, as the holidays near and cold weather sets in, another uptick is expected.
In addition, the flu season will complicate the pandemic this year, Lutz predicted. Flu cases in Washington were almost nonexistent when kids were not in school and people were wearing masks and locked down. With most children back in school, more flu cases are anticipated. A couple of documented flu cases have already been reported in Asotin County this year.
“It’s a bad mix when you have both diseases,” Lutz said.
As Asotin County’s Health Officer, Lutz is continuing to emphasize the importance of vaccines and wearing a mask in public.
“The vaccine is by far the most effective means to protect yourself and your loved ones. When you’re around people you don’t know, wear a mask. We’re still in a pandemic, and people need to take precautionary measures.”
Sandaine may be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri.