As COVID cases climb, vaccine and masking mandates expand

New federal order will require employees at large companies to vaccinate or submit to weekly testing

With COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continuing to climb across the country, state and county, elected officials are using masks and vaccine mandates to try to stem the spread of the virus and keep health systems from becoming completely overwhelmed.

“Hospitalization rates are at the highest level ever during this pandemic,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said during a press conference held Thursday, Sept. 9. “In most places in the state of Washington today, hospitals have already had to curtail some of their normal procedures because they’re jammed with COVID patients. It’s unacceptable.

More than 90 percent of those patients are unvaccinated, Inslee added.

COVID-19 related deaths also are beginning to stress systems in Washington, the governor said, with “morgues in Cowlitz County at capacity.”

“I’ve heard people say it’s an individual decision,” Inslee said of getting the free COVID vaccine available to every Washingtonian age 12 and older. “That is so far from the truth. When you make a decision to not be vaccinated, it’s not just about your health — it’s about the health of everyone around you.”

To help stop the spread of the virus, Inslee imposed a mask mandate for unvaccinated as well as vaccinated people in all indoor public spaces. Last week, the governor added a masking requirement for outdoor public events with more than 500 people in attendance. That mandate went into effect on Monday, Sept. 13.

“Making in an indoor setting is critical, but masking outdoors around other people makes sense,” said Washington Secretary of Health Umair Shah. “The continuing pandemic is because of two things: The delta variant and those who are unvaccinated. Our healthcare system is stressed, stretched and … very much strained.”

Biden sets vaccine requirements for large companies

President Joe Biden also implemented a host of new mandates and requirements on Sept. 9.

The president pointed to statistics showing the vast majority of those currently hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated, and said people refusing to get vaccinated “have cost all of us.”

Biden’s new mandate will require all employers with more than 100 workers to require their employees either show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. Under the new mandate, companies that violate the requirements will be subject to $14,000 penalties.

The mandate will impact several companies in Camas-Washougal that employ more than 100 workers, including the Pendleton Woolen Mill in Washougal, the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Camas and Camas’ largest private employer, Fisher Investments.

Contacted by The Post-Record this week, spokespeople for many of these businesses said they are waiting for more clarification from the federal government before implementing a timeline or plan for verifying employees’ vaccination status or requiring weekly COVID-19 tests.

“We are waiting for the (federal government) to issue clear guidance on how to implement the requirement,” John Dillard, Fisher Investments’ director of global public relations, said, adding the company “takes employee and community safety seriously” and will fully comply with the order.

Likewise, GP, which downsized its Camas operations in 2018, but still employs more than 100 workers at the downtown Camas paper mill, is “reviewing and evaluating the plan and will make determinations on next steps with our COVID-19 practices once implementation specifics are established by the government,” said GP spokesperson Kristi Ward.

“Until then, we will continue with the practices currently in place across GP facilities,” Ward said.

On the state level, in August, Inslee issued a mandate requiring most state workers, all K-12 school employees and private healthcare workers to be vaccinated by mid-October.

“I’m trying to avoid shutting down the economy … which is what we had to do when we started this and did not have a vaccine,” Inslee said. “Now, we have a vaccine and masks. And, frankly, it’s a little frustrating that people who (complained) about the efforts we took in shutting down our economy don’t want to get vaccinated. People need to get vaccinated. The time for excuses has long passed. The time for action is now.”

Shah added that state health officials have done everything they can to make the COVID-19 vaccines accessible and affordable for eligible Washingtonians.

“This is a very difficult time in both public health and the health care system,” Shah said. “We, as a state, are taking actions we know are going to help, and asking community members to do the right thing by getting vaccinated, masking up and doing everything they can to champion fighting this pandemic.”

In Clark County, COVID-19 cases are at the highest level since the beginning of the pandemic, with a transmission rate of 549.3 cases per 100,000 residents as of Sept. 9. The state’s department of health defines transmission rates of 100 to 199 cases per 100,000 residents as “substantial” and cases over 200 per 100,000 residents as “high.”

In early September, local doctors and public health officials held a press conference and asked local residents who are eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and take safety precautions such as wearing face coverings in public to help lessen the strain on Clark County’s healthcare system.

“We’re not heading in a good direction,” Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s health officer, said on Sept. 3, noting that the county’s COVID-19 case numbers in early September were 10 times the daily rate recorded in early July. Since then, COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates have continued to rise throughout Clark County. The county has had 349 people die from COVID-related causes, including 156 residents age 80 and older; 87 people in their 70s; 57 individuals in their 60s; 30 people in their 50s, and 19 residents between the ages of 30 and 49.

Asked last week if he had considered implementing statewide restrictions on unvaccinated individuals like the ones already being imposed in at least two Washington counties, Inslee said he would consider such measures if hospitalization and infection rates continue to go up across the state.

“We would consider that if we though it made sense,” he said, adding that he hoped it would not come to that and that Washington residents who have resisted getting the vaccine up to this point would, instead, talk to their physicians about the COVID-19 vaccines and decide to get vaccinated against the virus.

“There is salvation here. It’s vaccination,” Inslee said.