In a virtual town hall event Thursday, Washington State University leadership said vaccination among students and employees is key to having a successful in-person semester without exacerbating local COVID-19 case numbers.

Early in the meeting, WSU officials said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently reinstituted a mask mandate for indoor public spaces effective Monday, and will require all educators in the state, including those in higher education, to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

“That means if you’re taking a two-shot regime, you’re going to have both of your shots and the two-week waiting period after that second shot before the 18th of October,” WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said. “So if you’re an employee, if you’re a volunteer, if you’re a contractor for WSU, you fall under the governor’s mandate, we need to be making plans now to get those vaccines if you haven’t done so already.”

The school announced last week that it plans to conduct the majority of its classes face-to-face, but students will be required to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 10 or seek an exemption.

WSU Provost Elizabeth Chilton said about 80 percent of WSU classes systemwide will be conducted in-person and nearly 57 percent of students attending classes in Pullman have already confirmed they’ve been vaccinated. She said one positive development over the past year is that WSU faculty have been able to explore new instructional strategies, including incorporating more technology, which should help them to offer a degree of convenience and flexibility to students in the fall.

Per Inslee’s proclamation, vaccination for employees is a condition for employment, meaning those who do not get the shot or seek an exemption for religious or medical reasons could risk termination.

WSU leadership also discussed its 12-point plan for maintaining safety in the fall. This includes universal masking while indoors and continuing to offer COVID-19 testing to students, however it was repeatedly stressed widespread vaccination is the most critical component of the plan.

“It’s important to remember we can’t test our way out of a pandemic, but we can mitigate our way out of a pandemic, and the most important thing is that vaccination,” said Hailey Rupp, deputy chief of staff and director of strategic communications for WSU’s office of the president. “Our second point is we’re really encouraging everyone to stay home if they’re feeling ill. I think nationwide we have a bad history of working through the pain, but if you’re really not feeling well, stay home.”

Rupp said faculty and instructors have been encouraged to have some flexibility when it comes to student absences related to illness.

Executive Director of Cougar Health Services Joel Schwartzkopf encouraged students, faculty and staff to think of this as an opportunity to lead by example in their communities — particularly as hospitals begin to fill, driven by the more contagious delta variant of COVID-19. He said it’s easy to write off risk because of a relatively lower mortality rate among younger people, but the return of roughly 18,000 students to Pullman will invariably be connected to an uptick in local cases and the WSU community should do what it can to limit any potential surge.

“Delta is a game changer, it’s very easily transmissible and masks and vaccines work better together,” Schwartzkopf said. “I know some of us have a little bit of heartburn about having to put that mask on, but that added protection against airborne transmission of the virus, even if you’re vaccinated, is really going to protect those folks who can’t get vaccinated.”

Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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