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Washington requires COVID-19 vaccination for teachers, staff

Updated at 5:35 p.m.: Amid a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, Washington state is expanding its COVID-19 vaccine mandate to include all public, charter and private school teachers and staff — plus those working at the state's colleges and universities.

There is no weekly testing alternative, and those who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 risk losing their jobs, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday. Full vaccination means two weeks after a final dose, meaning workers need the final dose of either Pfizer or Moderna, or the one-shot dose of Johnson & Johnson by Oct. 4.

Just like a vaccine mandate announced last week that applies to most state workers, private health care and long-term care employees, the only opt-out is a medical or religious exemption. The education mandate includes all staff, including bus drivers and volunteers.

By not allowing a testing option, Inslee’s mandate appears to be the most sweeping of actions taken by any other state. Last week, California announced a similar mandate that covers both public and private schools, but allows testing instead of vaccination. Earlier this month, Hawaii required all Department of Education staffers to disclose their vaccination status or face weekly testing.

“We cannot continue to gamble with the health of our children, our educators, our school staff, parents or the public,” Inslee said.

The Democratic governor on Wednesday also expanded the statewide indoor mask mandate in place for non-vaccinated individuals to include those who are vaccinated, starting Monday.

Inslee’s office said the latest mandate also applies to college coaches, including Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich, who said he has declined to be vaccinated for personal reasons. Rolovich is one of two state employees scheduled to make more than $3 million this year along with Washington football coach Jimmy Lake.

In a statmeent, WSU Athletics didn't directly address the issue of Rolovich but said “we will work to ensure the mandates in the Governor’s Proclamation are followed.”

Officials with the Washington Education Association, a union representing public school employees, issued a statement after the announcement saying that educators “look forward to welcoming our students back in person this fall but to make that sustainable we must do everything we can to reduce the possibility of COVID transmission in our schools.”

“By vaccinating staff we reduce the possibility of infecting those who cannot be vaccinated, including our students under 12 years old,” wrote WEA President Larry Delaney.

The vaccine mandate does not apply to students, though K-12 students and staff are required to wear masks when the school year starts next month.

Washington's vaccine mandate also applies to most childcare and early learning providers who care for children from multiple households. Tribal schools are not included, though Inslee strongly encouraged them to follow suit.

An estimated 363,000 employees are covered under the mandate, though it's unclear how many within that group are already vaccinated. Of the 155,000 educators, school leaders and staff covered, Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal said he believes about 70% of that group is already vaccinated.

“Our goal is to get them all vaccinated,” he said.

Inslee's press conference was originally set to be held at an Olympia elementary school, but was moved to the governor’s conference room due to security concerns after an anti-mandate group planned to protest at the school. Last Friday, more than 300 people gathered at the Capitol to protest the state worker and health care vaccine mandates.

Before Wednesday's news conference, several dozen protesters gathered near the legislative building to demonstrate both the vaccine and mask mandates, carrying signs that read “No Jab" and “Unmask our kids.” At one point during Inslee's remarks, protesters could be heard in the rotunda shouting, “We do not consent."

Republican Rep. Alex Ybarra said in a statement that 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.”

“It was my choice to get vaccinated,” he wrote. “That’s the way it should be — a personal health care choice. It should not be a requirement for employment.”

As for the expanded indoor mask mandate, some areas had already imposed directives in their areas, and the state’s local health officers have recently recommended the wearing of masks indoors. The statewide mask mandate builds on the recommendation that Inslee made last month to follow federal guidance and “recommend” that everyone regardless of vaccination status wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas where there is “substantial or high” rates of COVID-19.

As of Monday, all of the state’s 39 counties were in the “high” threshold range, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There have been more than 471,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus more than 49,000 “probable” cases — in Washington state, and 6,297 deaths. State health officials say that most of the state’s new infections are caused by the delta variant, a more contagious version of the coronavirus.

“We have a serious situation right now,” said Department of Health Secretary Umair Shah. “This delta variant is a game changer.”

As of last week, nearly 71.5% of people age 12 and older have initiated vaccination and about 63% are fully vaccinated.

Associated Press photographer Ted Warren and sportswriter Tim Booth contributed.