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Vaccination politics: Gov. Inslee’s mandate vs a Republican’s ‘free society'

caption: A registered nurse fills syringes with Pfizer vaccines at a Covid-19 vaccination clinic at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Bellingham, Wash.
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A registered nurse fills syringes with Pfizer vaccines at a Covid-19 vaccination clinic at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Bellingham, Wash.
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

From the evergreen state to the gulf stream waters, vaccination politics are at it again.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee joined a growing number of governors from blue states this week by imposing a vaccination mandate for most state workers. He also extended the mandate to 400,000 private health care workers, many of whom may already be vaccinated.

There will be concerns about how this impacts union members, whether the governor is going too far, and whether this is really warranted.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum — and country — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has called vaccine mandates a threat to "free society."

"I think the question is: We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state. And I can tell you— Florida, we're a free state," DeSantis said last week.

He was responding to President Joe Biden after he urged Republican governors, like DeSantis, "to get out of the way" of additional measures to stop the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of Covid-19.

Political analyst and contributing columnist Joni Balter commented on KUOW that DeSantis "the unabashed winner" of the "blockheaded" governors group. She notes he has also banned school mask mandates (which some school districts intend to ignore). He also picked an unsuccessful legal fight with Norwegian Cruise Line over its Covid policies as a private business; a federal judge ruled against DeSantis in that case this week.

"This is a solid reminder that who you elect for a position like governor can make a life-and-death difference," Balter said. "Florida keeps breaking records with new [Covid-19] cases — almost 25,000 a day."

Meanwhile, Balter says Inslee's mandate that most state employees get vaccinated against the virus and support from local government leaders, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine, is the "biggest bragging point we have in this region."

"Our public officials are not wasting time squabbling among themselves about how to respond to the rising delta variant," Balter explains. "It’s one message, one expectation."

But as KUOW’s Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins points out, it may also be a case of one message, and one big question mark.

For one thing, large swaths of public employees are not covered by the mandate, Jenkins explains. Among them are higher education employees, the legislative and judicial branches of state government, independently elected officials' staff and others.

K-12 public school teachers and staff were also left out of Inslee's original mandate announced on Monday. Jenkins predicted that would be the next shoe to drop — and he was right.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal formally asked Inslee Friday to mandate vaccinations for K-12 public school employees across the board. The Washington Education Association indicated that its roughly 95,000 members would follow a vaccine mandate if the governor creates one.

And Seattle Public Schools, the state's largest school district, will now require all of its non-union staff to get vaccinated against Covid-19 by October 18. No word yet on whether that will be extended to teachers.

The mandate hasn't sat well with some state and city employees.

The Seattle Police Officers Guild says Durkan violated bargaining requirements when she made the decision at the city level without consulting the union. Durkan disagrees.

Jenkins says the surprising thing about Inslee's statewide mandate was that it doesn't allow employees to present negative Covid tests in lieu of vaccination. Fewer than half of staff at some state institutions are vaccinated, such as the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs' Spokane Veterans Home.

Like the Seattle police union, the Washington Federation of State Employees notified members its representatives would be advocating for fair implementation, perhaps as paid time off to get vaccinated.

And on the other side of the political spectrum, Jenkins says Republicans are up in arms.

"The House and Senate Republican leaders put out a joint statement calling the governor's mandate — under the threat of people losing their jobs if they don't vaccinated — 'heavy-handed' and 'wrong,'" he said. "Another Republican state senator called it 'cruel.'"

Still others went further, demanding Inslee reconsider the vaccination mandate and the mask mandate for K-12 students this fall.

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