In a press conference Aug. 9, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a vaccine mandate for most state employees and health care workers, including in the private sector. Inslee was joined by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who adopted the mandate for their respective jurisdictions. Aside from exemptions related to disability or a sincerely held religious belief, the governor has told these employees it is either get fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or get a different job. The message has stoked the 17-month-old flames in a partisan conflict of individualism versus collectivism in the face of a global pandemic. Democrats appear to champion vaccine distribution and access while Republicans hold tight to their right to choose.
“This mandate will save lives,” said state Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue), who was vaccinated the first day she qualified. “And our No. 1 job as legislators is to protect the health and safety of the people and communities in our state.”
The novel coronavirus made its United States debut in Snohomish County Jan. 21, 2020, when a man who had recently traveled abroad tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, Inslee and the state of Washington have led the charge in efforts to slow the spread of the virus. And Republicans have had a lot to say about it.
“Our state is not designed to be run by one person — especially for this long,” Senate minority leader Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia) said in a July 1 press release concerning the governor’s emergency powers under the then-over-16-month state of emergency.
Washington state was among the first to attempt a lockdown with the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order issued March 23, 2020. This prompted Washington state Republican lawmakers to demand a special session. Each of the governor’s extensions was met by public criticism from Republicans.
Republican leadership again unsuccessfully called for a special session in response to the vaccine mandate. For some Republicans, such a mandate is exactly what they feared.
Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kennewick) is a staunch constitutional conservative, often outside of the state’s more moderate Republican bloc. In 2021’s historic virtual legislative session, much of Klippert’s energy was focused on election reform and combating what he believes to be government overreach in the COVID-19 response. He proposed at least four separate bills to limit the governor’s emergency powers and cosponsored three additional attempts.
Klippert and seven other House Republicans can officially say I told you so: They tried and failed to pass legislation to protect the right of Washingtonians to deny vaccines.
Klippert watched the governor, in the legislator’s words, “take total control over the people of Washington state,” which he found “totally unacceptable.”
“So I went ahead and prepared legislation in the event that [Inslee] would mandate vaccinations and sure enough, look what he’s doing,” Klippert said.
Klippert was attending a symposium in South Dakota when he heard the news. He was not surprised; the mandate fits with what Klippert calls the governor’s “modus operandi.” Klippert is not vaccinated.
The governor has encouraged legislators to get vaccinated; however, they are not included in his mandate.
Kuderer is a supporter of the current mandate and further would not feel comfortable returning to an in-person legislative session where she would have to share physical space with unvaccinated lawmakers.
In Feb. 2021 in the early days of vaccine availability, Kuderer saw preferential vaccine access in her district and cosponsored a bill that would prevent privileged vaccine access among donors and board members of health care entities. It did not pass.
“I think health care is a human right,” Kuderer said. “We should all have the ability to access quality medical care. And when you’re dealing with something like a pandemic and some people are more vulnerable to the virus, I think it is correct for society to prioritize those people over others — and that money should not be a factor.”
The Democrat-run city of Seattle has become one of the most vaccinated major cities in the country. Seattle & King County Public Health adopted a multi-modal vaccine delivery system with the help of community leaders to tailor vaccine outreach to the needs of disproportionately impacted populations when it became clear that the county’s white residents had higher rates of vaccination than Black and Latinx residents.
“I wish that anybody in the United States, the state of Washington, in the world who wants to be vaccinated for COVID-19 could be,” Klippert said when asked about denying a vaccine that seems a sought-after commodity for some, especially for people in other countries. “I just don’t want people mandated by their government.”
Public Health officials on all levels speak in unison: “Vaccination is the best tool we have in this pandemic,” Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah said in a Washington State Department of Health press release.
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the Aug. 18-24, 2021 issue.