Calls to end King County employee vaccine mandate, particularly for law enforcement

SEATTLE — There’s a new demand to end King County’s employee vaccine mandate, specifically to stop firing sheriff’s deputies over the mandate and allow people who were terminated to come back to their jobs.

Councilmember Reagan Dunn says the uptick in violence in King County — plus a severe shortage of deputies — means the mandate should be lifted. Currently, Washington state, King County, and City of Seattle employees must be fully vaccinated to work.

“I’ve never seen higher vacancies at the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO),” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn. Dunn sent a letter to King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office on Tuesday asking for the mandate to be lifted.

“Forceful vaccine mandates that push deputies out of King County’s workforce ultimately cause more harm than good,” Dunn said in the letter. The councilmember added he’s vaccinated and boosted, and believes people who can get the shots should.

There are currently 106 open jobs at the KCSO. The Seattle Police Department is looking to hire 125 officers this year. The Seattle police chief said during a presentation to City Council Tuesday that 357 officers have left over the last two years.

“We saw an unprecedented amount of people leaving our department,” said Chief Adrian Diaz.

Dunn says the spikes in crime seen in the city and county means it’s time to end the employee vaccine mandate and allow deputies who’ve been fired to return to their previous jobs if they want.

“We have a record number of homicides and shootings,” Dunn said. Dunn said he believes the requirement should be lifted for all employees, but particularly for law enforcement given the surge in violence.

“Maybe it made sense months ago at the height of the delta wave or the top of the omicron wave, but it doesn’t make sense today,” Dunn said.

Data provided by Dunn’s office says 40 deputies have been fired over the mandate and 10 more are about to lose their jobs.

“We need to stop doing that,” Dunn said.

Epidemiologist Dr. Ali Mokdad with the Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington agrees it’s time to get rid of employee vaccine mandates overall.

“We are in a much better position and we don’t need these mandates,” Mokdad said.

He says that’s because of plunging COVID-19 cases, milder virus symptoms, and the high number of people who have already been infected and vaccinated.

“During delta we all said we need the mandate. So omicron has changed this virus and has moved this pandemic to an endemic phase,” Mokdad said. He said while it’s possible, it’s “very unlikely” for a new variant to emerge that will be able to be different enough from the omicron variant to reinfect people, and for it to be more infectious than omicron and push the variant out.

“That’s why I’m confident we’re in a good position for a while,” Mokdad said.

Mokdad said the recommendation to end mandates could change and the situation does require monitoring, but he still believes it’s time for vaccine mandates to end.

“We need to move on. It’s really important to remember we need to move on,” he said.

However, both King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said they are not currently considering ending the employee vaccine mandate.

“Vaccines remain the best and foremost line of defense against further resurgence of the virus and its worst health outcomes. Further, for these employees, vaccines are necessary to protect the health of fellow first responders, City staff, and the community being served,” Harrell’s office said in a statement.

The city has 109 employees — or 1% of all employees — who were terminated because of vaccine noncompliance, the Mayor’s office said.

Twenty people were fired from the Seattle Fire Department, and one Seattle police officer was let go. However, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) says two more officers are “within days” from losing their jobs, with several more on the same track. The numbers don’t include officers who chose to resign because of the mandate.

SPOG says it supports lifting the employee vaccine mandate.

“We need to start thinking about a lot of other problems beyond just the vaccine,” Dunn said.

Executive Dow Constantine’s office said in a statement it plans to fill sheriff’s deputy vacancies with recruitment bonuses of $15,000 for lateral hires.

“Any employee who wishes to return to public service in King County may be able to do so provided they meet the requirements of employment, which is to provide proof of vaccination,” said spokesperson Chase Gallagher in a statement. “COVID killed more than 450 police officers across the country in 2021, and we know the best way to prevent that number from increasing is with the safe, effective COVID vaccine.”

Statewide, about 3.4% (2,135) of employees left their jobs or were terminated due to the mandate, according to the Washington Department of Health website.

Public Health — Seattle & King County did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.