Tag: vaccination

As Omicron Cases Surge, King County Jail Vaccination Rate Reaches New High

Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center
Photo via Kingcounty.gov.

By Paul Kiefer

Nine months into the campaign to vaccinate people held in King County’s three detention centers, jail health staff have fully vaccinated more than 2,000 people. The effort shows no signs of abating. But with cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus surging in Seattle and King County, the risk of serious outbreaks among jail inmates and staff is also far from over.

As of Monday, December 27, the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) recorded twenty new COVID-19 infections among people in custody. The new cases mark one of the largest spikes since the department’s vaccination campaign began in March, when nearly 50 inmates tested positive for the virus in a span of three weeks. After several smaller surges over the summer, infections in the jails remained consistently low from mid-September until last week, when the latest surge began.

The population of the jails turns over frequently. In the first half of 2021, the average inmate spent just over a month in custody. The constant flow of new arrivals, combined with the transmission risk posed by guards and jail staff, makes it difficult to completely curtail the spread of the virus behind bars. In total, DADJ has recorded 355 cases of the virus among inmates since the pandemic began. However, as a result of the pandemic, King County’s jails also hold far fewer people than in the recent past. Since the start of the pandemic, the county’s inmate population has fallen by nearly a third, with 1338 people in custody as of last Tuesday.

When a person arrives at a jail in King County for booking, health staff test them for COVID-19 and offer them a chance to get vaccinated. When the vaccination program began at the end of March, 101 inmates received vaccines in the span of a single week. After a surge of takers in April and May, the pace of vaccination slowed; since June, health staff have vaccinated an average of 291 people per month.

Because of the high turnover, it has been a challenge for jail staffers to keep pace with the county’s overall vaccination rate, which recently passed 75 percent. The vaccination rate behind bars hovered around 50 percent for much of the summer, although it has risen to 65 percent as of this week.

“The people we serve have as many questions as anyone else about the COVID-19 vaccine,” said King County Jail Health Division Director Danotra McBride. “A significant portion of our incarcerated patients have been hesitant to receive the vaccine since it first became available, but we’re happy to see hesitancy decreasing over time.” To boost the vaccination rate among the incarcerated population, jail health staffers have begun offering vaccines to inmates during every clinic visit, and jail administrators have brought infectious disease experts to talk with people in custody at the jails in Seattle and Kent.

The arrival of the Omicron variant in King County—which, as of last Tuesday, made up a third of the county’s total recent infections—creates a new challenge for the county’s jail population and health workers. The new variant is more resistant to existing COVID-19 vaccines, presenting a challenge to jail health staff just as the vaccination campaign began to pick up steam once again.

Vaccine Mandate Applies to Incarcerated Workers; Anti-Vax Conspiracy Theorist Runs for Hospital Board

1. According to a memo issued to all Washington Department of Corrections inmates last week, the state’s vaccine mandate does apply to some incarcerated workers. The memo clears up one point of confusion in a larger and ongoing debate about whether inmates qualify as state workers.

As of October 26, the DOC will require vaccinations for positions on Department of Natural Resources (DNR) work crews, Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) work crews, and for positions with Correctional Industries, the semi-autonomous business conglomerate run by the DOC, that involve working outside of the state’s 12 prisons. Any unvaccinated incarcerated workers have until December 13 to complete the vaccine regimen; for now, the DOC will not allow them to return to work.

The department is allowing incarcerated people to apply for medical or religious exemptions from the mandate. The DOC has not yet responded to PubliCola’s inquiries about the exemption process, nor have they specified how many workers are subject to the mandate.

Vaccination rates among people in DOC custody have slightly outstripped the state’s overall rate of 73 percent: more than three-quarters of all inmates are fully vaccinated. In mid-September, the vaccination rate for DOC staff was significantly lower—around 40 percent—and the department has begun the process of firing more than 300 staffers who refused to comply with the state’s mandate.

Despite the relatively high vaccination rate, COVID-19 infections remain a persistent problem in the DOC’s prisons and work release facilities. On Thursday, the department instituted a lockdown at the Cedar Creek Correctional Center near Centralia to contain an outbreak of the virus; meanwhile, the Clallam Bay Correctional Center on the Olympic Peninsula is still recovering from a dramatic surge in cases in late August and September.

Although the number of new vaccinations that will result from the mandate is still unknown, any increase in vaccinations among incarcerated people could become even more important as the DOC begins an effort to shift hundreds of inmates from prisons to work release facilities and home monitoring in the coming months. That project—a continuation of last year’s efforts to reduce prison populations in response to the pandemic—also involves adding bunks at the dozen work release centers around the state in anticipation of new arrivals; as those centers become more crowded, vaccination campaigns will become even more vital for the safety of people in custody.

2. Even if you vote faithfully in every election, you may not pay always make it to the bottom of the ballot, where the fire and rescue commissioners, sewer board members, and cemetery commissioners tend to languish. But maybe you should—especially if you live in Renton, where a anti-vax COVID denier who peddled election conspiracy theories and bragged about being in Washington, D.C. on January 6 is running for a position on the hospital board that oversees Valley Medical Center, in Washington.

Katie Bachand, a doula who graduated from the Seattle Midwifery School and Bastyr University, portrays herself in the King County  King County Voters’ Guide as a fiscally-minded reformer who wants to “return control of our Hospital District to the voters” and “stop the Trustees from taking your property taxes to fund whatever they deem to be necessary expenditures, including the salary of the CEO, without a vote from the Board of Commissioners!”

But in private social media posts, Bachand has promoted disinformation about COVID, including the “theory” that vaccinations cause the disease, promoted posts calling the pandemic itself a “psy-op,” not a pandemic”), referred to vaccine mandates as “Nazi[sm],” and promoted untested “cures” for COVID such as ivermectin, the much-mocked horse dewormer that the FDA has warned is not a treatment for COVID. In one September post, Bachand suggested that the government manufactured the COVID crisis to convince people to “accept a shot that changes our dna. This is all factual and from the Bible- no conspiracy theory ideas….”

As recently as August 21, Bachand encouraged nurses and other public employees to resist vaccine mandates in order to “win against tyranny”. Bachand also bragged about being in Washington, D.C. for former president Trump’s January 6th “Stop the Steal” rally claiming that “the truth is coming out that the F Bee Eye was behind it”—lingo meant to evade Facebook’s misinformation filters—and claimed in September that Joe Biden’s election should be decertified because “the audit showed over 57,000 fraudulent votes.”

Monique Taylor-Swan, Bachand’s opponent, is a certified home care aid and a board member of Service Employees International Union 775 with a long list of union and Democratic Party endorsements. According to the Progressive Voters Guide, Taylor-Swan wants to focus on “proper staffing and making pay more equitable between the highest-paid executives and underpaid nurses and staff” at Valley Medical.

—Paul Kiefer, Clara Coyote

City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday evening, a coalition of Seattle city employee unions reached a tentative agreement with the City of Seattle about the enforcement of the city’s new mandatory vaccination policy.  The agreement, which outlines rules for vaccination exemptions and offers paid time off for vaccinated employees, now needs the approval of both the unions’ membership and the city council. Union members will vote on the agreement this weekend.

On Friday, both Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city labor leadership heralded the agreement as a key victory in the city’s fight to control the spread of COVID-19. Karen Estevenin, the executive director of PROTEC17, which represents employees across multiple city departments, told PubliCola the union coalition didn’t object to the vaccine mandate itself, but wanted to give city employees a hand in shaping how the mandate will play out in their workplace.

“One of the key benefits of having a union is that workers have a voice on policy changes that affect their workplaces and their livelihoods,” she said. “By negotiating the terms of the vaccine mandate, we wanted to ensure that this was a fair, transparent, and equitable policy for all City employees.”

Behind the scenes, labor organizers convinced nearly every public employee union to buy into the agreement, including the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents lieutenants and captains in the Seattle Police Department. One key holdout is the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and is still negotiating its own arrangement with the city. Public safety employee unions have negotiating options that other public sector unions lack, so it is not uncommon for SPOG and other unions representing public safety employees to bargain separately from the larger coalition.

The agreement, which the mayor’s office announced publicly on Friday, will guarantee a floating vacation day in the next year for all employees who submit proof by October 5 that they are fully vaccinated or that they will be vaccinated by the October 18 deadline. Vaccinated employees will also receive another 80 hours of paid leave to deal with COVID-related emergencies, including recovering from vaccination or taking care of newly vaccinated family members.

As negotiations wound to a close this week, the coalition ran into two sticking points: whether to replenish the sick day allowance for employees who took time off work to get vaccinated earlier this year and whether the mandate would cover city contractors. The agreement reached on Thursday will allow employees to restore three days of sick leave they used to receive the vaccine before Durkan announced the mandate, and it specifies that the city will apply the vaccine mandate to any contractors and vendors who work on city construction sites or in close proximity with city staff. Continue reading “City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come”