State Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-Auburn), fed up with state vaccine and mask mandates, is calling for a two-day special legislative session to address Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest vaccine proclamations and “rein in” the governor’s powers.
A dozen other Republican senators have already signed on to his efforts, Fortunato said, but the trick will be convincing Democrats. Two-thirds of the House and Senate — both controlled by Democrat majorities — would need to agree to haul the legislature back into session.
Inslee has mandated many workers — most state employees, including those in education, as well as those working in private healthcare — to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face termination. Exemptions exist, but unlike similar order in other states, employees won’t be able to receive regular COVID testing in lieu of vaccination.
The governor made that call amid a sharp increase in reported COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state recently due to the delta variant. The number of hospitalized COVID patients, which has eclipsed its previous winter peak, is doubling every 18 to 19 days, according to the Department of Health, and the lion’s share of that surge is driven by the unvaccinated. Death rates still hover around five to 10 people per day, but incomplete data shows they may be on the rise, too.
“(The vaccine) is the single most effective resource to combat spread (and) prevent illness and death,” the governor’s office website said in a vaccine mandate FAQ. “The state of Washington has a duty to our employees to provide a safe work environment free of known hazards, and to reduce risk to the public we serve. This safety measure is equally important to fight the spread of COVID generally and statewide because it will help to protect the communities in which we live and interact before and after our state work hours.”
Protests and rallies against the mandate have cropped up across the state. The Washington Federation of State Employees, representing nearly 47,000 state and public service workers, filed suit last week to stop the mandate, arguing the state didn’t bargain over it in good faith with the union. And members of firefighting agencies, schools and hospitals are warning of the loss of many experienced employees on Oct. 18 if the governor keeps his course, with corresponding disruptions to public services.
About 72 percent of Washingtonians above the age of 12 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health.
Fortunato, the senator representing parts of rural and suburban King and Pierce counties, said he’s not against required COVID-19 testing, nor private businesses setting their own rules on masks and vaccines. But he won’t get the vaccine, and he says it’s “unamerican” to require anyone to do so. Fortunato has also urged state school boards to resist the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s threats to cut funds for disobeying state health orders.
“I’m not saying don’t get vaccinated. I’m not downplaying the impacts that COVID has had. But I am not going to threaten people with the force of government to comply,” Fortunato said.
Lacy Fehrenbach, the state Department of Health’s deputy secretary of COVID response, said in an interview that vaccines are safe and highly effective – and the most important tool to fighting the pandemic.
With more than 6,500 deaths and 30,000 hospitalizations from the coronavirus in Washington, “COVID can have very severe consequences,” Fehrenbach said. 1.2 percent of COVID cases have resulted in death, according to the health department’s COVID-19 data dashboard.
“(And) the vaccine safety process and review was not in any way curtailed,” she said. “They were very carefully reviewed by the FDA and CDC before being recommended for use. And since we started using them in December, there have been about 350 million (administered) nationwide … with very, very few significant safety events or long term side effects.”
According to a draft of his special session request, Fortunato wants lawmakers to discuss COVID-19 vaccine discrimination, mask mandates in school, reforming the state’s framework for granting emergency powers, and taking action “to restore safety and order by sufficiently empowering police to enforce the law.”
The state is no longer in a COVID emergency, Fortunato said, and so the governor should be taking these decisions back to the legislature rather than wielding emergency powers.
As an analogy: “You’re driving down the road, you get in an accident … they rush you to the hospital … the next day, you’re in recovery; well, that’s no longer an emergency,” Fortunato said. “Now you’re in a managed crisis.”
Fortunato introduced a bill this year that would have prevented Inslee’s mandate. SB 5144 would have prevented any stage agency from issuing any COVID-19 vaccination requirements that didn’t include opt-outs for religious, philosophical or personal reasons. But the bill failed.
Fortunato admits Democrats likely won’t be inclined to sign on to his proposed special session. But with lawmakers done for the year’s regular session, Fortunato has few other legislative cards to play.
“I am reduced to writing letters to Santa Claus,” Fortunato said. “When we’re not in session, that’s basically all I can do. This is something I can do. … And even if you agree with everything that the governor’s doing … why deny your other members the opportunity to represent people in their district?”