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Kittitas County 'disappointed' vaccine mandate prevents state from accepting help in clearing snow

The state's vaccine mandate requires anyone working for or with the state to be fully vaccinated against the virus or have an exemption and accommodation.

KITTITAS COUNTY, Wash. — While the deadline for Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees came and went last fall, repercussions are still being felt across Washington in various ways.

Following recent significant snowfall across western Washington, the Kittitas County Department of Public Works (KCDPW) said it reached out to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on Jan. 11 to offer its help clearing roadways.

Specifically, the county offered to help clear State Route 903 near the town of Ronald, according to WSDOT.

Until Wednesday, residents said there was just one passable lane on the road.

"We only had one lane. We had like a eight to 10 foot mountain right here," said Morgan Matz. 

The county, which includes Snoqualmie Pass, saw Interstate 90 and Highway 97 close for three days due to the snowfall, creating shipping delays, making travel across the state virtually impossible and hindering access to certain services.

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However, WSDOT said it could not accept the help because the county could not meet a contractual requirement that was part of the vaccine mandate.

According to WSDOT, these county crews were not an option because they “could not meet the vaccination declaration required of all interlocal agreements and contracts with Washington state agencies” since the mandate’s deadline.

The Board of Commissioners for Kittitas County, which does not have a vaccine mandate in place for its employees, said in a release that it is “extremely disappointed” with the state for "refusing" help.

“During these times, we need to be able to put differences aside and work to support one another,” said Commissioner Laura Osiadacz in a statement. “It needs to be neighbors helping neighbors and lending a hand to get the work done.”

Osiadacz said she hopes this situation helps restart the conversation about what makes sense for essential workers, especially those working by themselves.

"We also believe that when public health and safety is at risk and there's difficult times, if things aren't happening, people need to know why," she said.

WSDOT said it signed with BKC Contracting, a Kittitas County company, to provide the necessary dump trucks, excavators and bulldozers to remove the snow on SR 903 near Ronald beginning Jan. 12. 

Third-party contractors must sign the department’s vaccination declaration, which means they “have a process in place to verify” full vaccination of all employees working on-site or a separate process to grant and document exemptions and corresponding accommodations for current and future employees.

The record-breaking snowfall at the start of the month continues to impact the region, with persistent pass closures and even an emergency declaration in Leavenworth

WSDOT said in a statement, "Our crews continue to work long hours across the state to clear and treat roads as well as deal with flooding, blowing snow and other winter weather statewide as well as normal highway work and emergency response."

The agency warned Washingtonians to expect longer closures due to winter weather this season in November due to staffing shortages and impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, WSDOT said the extended closure at Snoqualmie Pass was not caused by the mandate or the pandemic but was simply the result of the rare and significant weather event and safety concerns.