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Washington issues vaccine mandate for K-12 staff and new state mask requirement

caption: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

All school employees in Washington state must get a Covid-19 vaccine, or risk losing their job.

Also, masks will once again be required in most indoor settings across Washington starting Monday, August 23, according to the latest mandates from Gov. Jay Inslee.

“I’m convinced we are at this point in this pandemic that without these vaccine requirements we will continue to be susceptible to new variants," Inslee said at an announcement Wednesday.

Teachers, faculty, coaches, bus drivers, volunteers, contractors and other staff associated with schools, colleges, and childcare and early learning programs will have until October 18 to be fully vaccinated.

Inslee urged Washingtonians to speak with their medical providers and experts about vaccines, and not fall prey to misinformation on the internet.

“These vaccines are incredibly effective, amazingly effective. They are a medical miracle. And they are a double miracle because they not only save lives by hundreds of thousands, but they have minimal side effects," Inslee said, further noting that "169 million Americans already know this is true.”

“More than 95% of Covid hospitalizations we see today are among the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated people are those at risk in Washington and those are the people we love and care for. It’s heartbreaking for us to see losing our neighbors, our coworkers, our students to a preventable disease.”

The vaccine requirements extend to public, private, and charter K-12 schools, as well as higher education institutions. Most childcare and early learning providers who serve multiple families will also be included.

People providing family, friend, and neighborhood care are not included in the mandate. The mandate also does not apply to tribal schools, and does not impact any students.

“Shutdowns have impacts," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. "To educators all over the state, thank you for the work you are doing … From the bus driver, to the person serving a meal, to our custodial teams, to our maintenance crews, thank you for the work you’ve done to keep kids safe. I need you to step up again. If you’re not vaccinated please move to do so quickly. You are creating the buffer and the protection for young people and peers."

Like the vaccination mandate for other state workers and health care personnel, announced earlier this month, exemptions for genuine medical and religious reasons will be allowed. There will be no option for staff to get regular testing instead of a vaccine.

Individuals who refuse to get vaccinated will be subject to dismissal, according to the Governor’s office.

“For those who are frustrated by any of our actions against this pandemic, it is very clear why this is happening," Inslee said. "It is because not enough people are getting vaccinated. The sooner we get more people vaccinated, the sooner we can free ourselves from interruptions, masks and other interruptions in our lives."

The new mandate comes amid a rising Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, mostly among the unvaccinated, that are straining the state’s healthcare system. It also comes as families and districts across the state prepare for a return to school.

RELATED: 'A very rough fall in Seattle for pediatric patients' as delta variant spreads

The Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has previously said they’d support a vaccine mandate if it was deemed necessary.

In a statement last week the association said: “All along we have said that we will follow the guidance of public health experts. If it is the opinion of public health experts that a vaccine mandate is the next best step to take to control this pandemic, WEA will support that position.”

Not all organizations have responded favorably to the mandates. The Seattle Police Officers Guild has pushed back against Seattle's version of a vaccine mandate for public employees.

Mask mandate returns

Inslee’s announcement Wednesday didn’t stop with vaccines. Washington is also returning to a statewide mask mandate.

Starting Monday, everyone, vaccinated or not, must wear a mask in indoor public settings, with a few exceptions.

Masks are not required for those younger than five, or for people with a medical condition that prevents mask wearing. They're also not required in offices that aren't easily accessible to the public where people are vaccinated.

People working alone indoors or in a vehicle with no public face-to-face interaction are also exempt. And if you're having a small, private indoor gathering where everyone is vaccinated you can go unmasked.

Inslee said Wednesday that athletes actively playing or practicing indoor sports don't have to wear a mask, but those on the bench do.

Elsewhere, officials say face coverings must go on.

Health officials are also strongly recommending, though not requiring, that people wear masks in crowded outdoor settings like concerts or farmers markets.

The delta variant is proving to be much more contagious than previously in the pandemic. For example, one Covid outbreak has emerged from Watershed, an outdoor country music festival at the Gorge Amphitheater held on Aug. 1. More than 200 people have reported coming down with a case of Covid after attending the concert.

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