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Reversing predecessor, Washington’s new secretary of state mandates vaccines

In one of his first acts as Washington secretary of state, Democrat Steve Hobbs has told his roughly 300 staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by February 25, or face losing their jobs.

Under Hobbs’ predecessor, Republican Kim Wyman, the secretary of state’s office was the lone statewide office that did not impose a vaccine requirement after Gov. Jay Inslee announced his mandate for state employees, health care workers and educators last summer.

“I am confident that this will help protect the employees of this office, as well as the citizens that we serve,” Hobbs told reporters during a virtual briefing on the new requirement.

Inslee appointed Hobbs, a former longtime state senator, as secretary of state in November after Wyman announced she was resigning to take a top election security post with the Biden administration.

The secretary of state’s office estimates that already more than 200 of its employees, or about 70 percent, are vaccinated. By comparison, about 93 percent of state employees covered by Inslee’s mandate have verified they’re vaccinated.

Hobbs said his office is adopting Inslee’s vaccine policy which allows employees to seek an exemption and accommodation to continue working. Those will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The secretary of state’s office operates 27 locations across the state and is responsible for a broad portfolio that includes elections, corporation and nonprofit registrations and operation of the state archives and library.

In reversing Wyman’s decision not to require vaccines, Hobbs is aligning his office’s policy not only with Inslee, but with the other eight independently elected statewide officeholders.

The vaccine requirement is Hobbs’ first noticeable departure from how Wyman ran the office. In an interview last fall, Wyman — Washington's only Republican statewide officeholder — defended her decision not to require vaccines, even though she was vaccinated herself.

“I wasn’t willing to fire someone who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to share with me their vaccination status,” Wyman said. “I don’t want to politicize this. It was just a policy decision.”

At the time, Wyman said her office was managing to keep COVID-19 case counts low through mitigation measures such as daily symptom screenings and social distancing.

However, a state library employee who contacted the public radio Northwest News Network in October raised concerns about working alongside unvaccinated staff in buildings without special air handling or filtration systems.

The employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal in the workplace, said there was a push in August to get most secretary of state employees back in the office, at least three days a week.

“By and large, employees at [the secretary of state’s office] are very fond of, and loyal to, Kim,” the person wrote at the time. “However, I do know that some have been disappointed about her not following the governor's mandate.”

On Tuesday, that same employee praised the vaccine mandate.

"I'm glad that Secretary Hobbs is looking out for the health of his workers, especially those who are at greater risk," the employee said.

Recently, the situation has gotten more complicated with the arrival of the highly contagious omicron variant. While omicron can evade vaccines, doctors and public health officials say the shots still provide protection against more severe symptoms.

Asked how he would respond to a staff member who doesn’t want to get vaccinated and points to omicron as evading vaccines, Hobbs held firm: “Being fully vaccinated brings you greater protections, even if you were to get infected by omicron.”

For now, secretary of state staff will not be required to get COVID-19 vaccine boosters, but Hobbs said that could be a requirement later.

Hobbs estimated that “a few” secretary of state employees may refuse to get vaccinated. Among state employees covered by Inslee’s mandate, about 3 percent — or just over 2,000 — left their jobs or were terminated because they did not want to get vaccinated, according to the Office of Financial Management.

Copyright 2022 Northwest News Network