Bringing the message home, an image from a social media advertising campaign run by Whatcom County earlier this year urges individuals to do whatever they can to help fight COVID. The pandemic rages on, with a death toll in the United States exceeding 660,000 … and climbing. Vaccine mandates are being widely employed, as hospitals around the country overflow with patients, many unvaccinated. (Courtesy Whatcom County Health Department)

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As the Delta variant of COVID-19 ravages the unvaccinated population, killing some and filling hospitals, public, private, and government entities have renewed masking mandates, and more are enacting vaccination mandates and requiring proof of testing to stamp out the virus from places of both work and play.

On Sept. 21, Bellingham mayor Seth Fleetwood signed an emergency order requiring mandatory vaccination of all city employees, volunteers and certain contractors by Dec. 3. The mandate covers a range of city service agencies, including the Bellingham Police Department and any contractors who perform work inside city-owned or leased facilities. 

“It is clear our return to normalcy requires firm action on all our parts,” Fleetwood said in a press release. “I hope taking this step within our city government will inspire other organizations to take similar actions as well. Public health officials at all levels have been clear that vaccination is one of the most important steps we can take to fight this pandemic.”

Currently, 79% of the city’s 975 employees have voluntarily reported being vaccinated, according to the press release. 

Under the vaccination order, proof of full vaccination (defined as two weeks after a second dose of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccine, or two weeks after a single dose of Johnson & Johnson’s) must be provided to the city’s human resources department by Nov. 19. 

The proof can be provided as a vaccination card or photo of the card, a record in the state immunization information system or documentation from a health care provider or electronic health record. Employees can seek exemptions for legitimate medical reasons or sincere religious beliefs, but they must be applied for by Oct. 15.

Those who don’t meet the deadline or receive an exemption will be deemed as not meeting a condition of employment, Fleetwood said in the release, and will likely be terminated. 

Condition of employment

Many Whatcom County employers are now falling under a combination of city, state and federal vaccination mandates. In addition, many smaller businesses are self-imposing mandates on both workers and patrons. 

On Sept. 9, President Joe Biden issued an order directing the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) to issue national guidelines that require private companies with more than 100 workers to require employees to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing for the virus.

The state’s Oct. 18 mandate, which requires employees, contractors, providers and appointees of most state agencies to be fully vaccinated, is one that some City of Bellingham employees already were subject to before the city mandate was announced. 

This includes about 160 employees, including uniformed firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and fleet mechanics, according to Fleetwood’s press release. 

The fire department appears well on its way towards full compliance, according to city communications director Janice Keller. About 83% of Bellingham Fire Department employees self-reported being vaccinated as of Aug. 27, and about 78% of uniformed firefighters voluntarily attested to vaccination as of that date, she added. 

Hospitalization rates showed a steep upward trend in many areas of Whatcom County this fall, with unvaccinated individuals being among the vast majority of cases. (Washington State Department of Health chart)

The Port of Bellingham falls under both the state mandate and Biden’s September order to the Department of Labor. 

Currently, about 65% of port employees have voluntarily shown proof of vaccination, said Michael Hogan, the Port’s public affairs administrator. Although not currently mandating a vaccine ahead of any deadlines, Hogan said the Port will be ready for Oct. 18. 

In the meantime, Hogan said the port has engaged with workers and their representatives to encourage vaccination and safety. This includes offering workplace vaccinations, granting paid time off for vaccination and recovery from side effects, providing masks and instructing infected workers to stay home, among other enhanced measures like good ventilation and encouragement of remote work where appropriate. 

Port employees at Bellingham International Airport, the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, other transportation hubs and in public indoor settings are also required to wear masks. 

Many ports in Western Washington have taken different strategies so far. The Port of Olympia previously required vaccination of its employees, while the Skagit and Anacortes port districts currently have no mandates in place. The Port of Skagit does not track the number of its vaccinated employees; Anacortes required proof of vaccination for employees to go maskless in port buildings before the state’s indoor masking directive returned in August. 

Some waiting and wondering

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department has not publicly shared any vaccination data, but Deb Slater, the department’s community programs coordinator, said an informal, voluntary survey was sent via email to employees. The results, she added, would not currently be made public. 

In an email, Sheriff Bill Elfo said his department will seek legal advice on a federal mandate to better understand what will likely be required of them. This is a path similar to the one Whatcom County is taking for its employees. 

Jed Holmes, community outreach facilitator for the county executive’s office, said they are unsure whether the president’s directive to OSHA will apply to them or not. According to Holmes, it would be a lot easier if there were federal guidelines instead of having each jurisdiction trying to figure things out for themselves.

Municipalities are also handling things differently. The City of Anacortes does not have a citywide vaccination mandate, but, like Bellingham, has employees who fall under the state mandate, including all municipal court staff, firefighters and EMTs.

Emily Schuh, an administrative services director for the city, told Salish Current that they expect the federal mandate’s application to local governments, through OSHA and WISHA, the state’s labor and industries department, will likely apply to both public and private employers with 25 or more workers

San Juan County commissioners, meanwhile, have passed a resolution requiring all county employees and volunteers to be vaccinated by Oct. 31.

Salish Current reached out to obtain vaccination data from the City of Mount Vernon and Skagit County Sheriff’s Office, but responses were not issued by press time. 

Sports precautions

Throughout Western Washington, sports venues are also requiring either proof of vaccination or of negative COVID-19 tests within several days of an event. 

Fans of professional sports attending Seattle Seahawks or Sounders games at Lumen Field must show either proof of vaccination or negative tests, the latter of which must be FDA-approved and not at-home, self-administered tests. This is also the case for fans attending Seattle Storm playoff games at Everett’s Angel of the Winds Arena. 

For fans of the new National Hockey League’s Seattle Kraken, a stricter policy exists. All fans are required to be fully vaccinated to enter Climate Pledge Arena, except for those who aren’t vaccinated for a legitimate reason. Those in the latter category must provide a negative test. Any person unvaccinated without a legitimate reason will not be allowed into the arena. The policy also applies to other events held there, such as concerts. 

T-Mobile Park currently doesn’t require vaccination to attend Seattle Mariners games, but plans to align their policy with Seattle’s and King County’s vaccination verification policy, which takes effect Oct. 25. Unless the Mariners make a stunning playoff run, however, it’s unlikely to affect baseball fans until 2022. 

Out on the town

In Bellingham, many entertainment venues have adopted a vaccine mandate or testing to see a show, but it can depend upon the individual event.

At the Mount Baker Theatre, patrons must provide vaccine proof or a negative test within 72 hours of a performance, but some event organizers who use the theater have a zero tolerance policy. The Bellingham Symphony Orchestra, for example, does not accept a negative COVID-19 test as an alternative to vaccination. 

Sylvia Center for the Arts, which hosts both the iDiOM Theater and Upfront Theatre, requires proof of vaccination or a negative test within 48 hours of a show. The same policy exists for patrons of downtown Bellingham music venues including the Wild Buffalo and The Shakedown. At the Pickford Cinema, where proof of vaccine is also required, unvaccinated patrons without a legitimate reason are not allowed in. 

Many local bars and restaurants in downtown Bellingham are also enacting their vaccination mandates, requiring proof of vaccine for indoor seating. At venues like the Black Sheep, those without proof will be served only outdoors. 

A ‘least-worst’ policy

As the pandemic continues and public health and economic strategy shifts to incorporate vaccine mandates, the avenues for how the unvaccinated work and play narrow. 

Questions about COVID vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds were answered in a recent video produced by San Juan County featuring Healthy Communities manager Ellen Wilcox, left; health officer Dr. Frank James, upper right; and emergency management director Brendan Cowan.

How people feel about vaccination mandates, however, is a lot more varied than the mandates themselves. 

In Bellingham, most seem to be supportive of the city’s new mandate, including the Downtown Bellingham Partnership.

“We appreciate that this is not an easy decision for the city,” said Alice Clark, executive director for DBP. “We acknowledge that implementing this requirement will help our community in tackling the pandemic more effectively.”

Britta Eschete, a Western Washington University employee and local union representative, agrees. 

“If I ever had any doubts between mandating or just recommending a COVID vaccine as a condition of employment, all I needed is to read the daily counts of infection rates and the percentage of unvaccinated individuals,” she said. “Anyone choosing not to be vaccinated is experimenting with their own health and that of their colleagues.”

Guy Occhiogrosso, president and CEO of the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce, is less enthusiastic about the mandate for several reasons.

“There are a number of valid reasons members of our community have not been vaccinated,” he said. “Additionally, vaccine mandates apply even more pressure on our already critical workforce.”

While every employer has the right to develop their own vaccine protocol, Occhiogrosso said, he’s an advocate for getting the vaccine, and the mandate was made with the safety of everyone in mind. 

Even medical professionals can see both sides of the mandate coin. 

Dr. Frank James, San Juan County health officer, Orcas Island clinic administrator and Bellingham physician, said that while no one should force anyone against their will to be vaccinated, the nature of COVID-19 makes foregoing vaccines a choice with potentially grave outcomes for both those who decline them and those with whom they come into contact. 

“We sometimes have values that conflict and, as a community, we have to decide which one is more important,” he said. “Protecting everyone that comes to an office or facility from getting what, for some, is a life-ending infection, or for others may cause lifelong disability, is one of these issues.”

While the Delta variant of COVID-19 allows for better odds of a breakthrough infection, James said the vaccine still works well enough in the bloodstream to prevent severe disease in most cases. 

Although he has seen very sick vaccinated persons in San Juan County, he’s also seen the long-term effects of those who became ill with COVID-19 before vaccines came to the rescue. In one case, a person infected a year-and-a-half ago still has trouble walking up a flight of stairs due to likely pulmonary fibrosis. 

With the pandemic continuing, however, James said that vaccination mandates are something of a “least-worst” public policy. While they may have significant impacts on unvaccinated individuals and their families, they are a sound strategy for trying to control the spread of COVID-19. 

“We need to protect the most vulnerable in our community,” he said. “Those that are unwilling or unable to be immunized are unsafe for the public if they do not do all they can to reduce the risk of transmission to others.” 

— Reported by Matt Benoit, with research contributed by Ella Banken

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