Inslee: State on the brink of looser COVID restrictions

Governor also announces new head of unemployment insurance department

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The number of Washington residents who have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot is getting closer to the threshold needed to largely return to pre-pandemic operations earlier than the current deadline slated for the end of the month.

During a June 9 press conference, Gov. Jay Inslee said 66.4 percent of the eligible population over the age of 16 in Washington has received at least their first dose. The governor announced several weeks earlier that if the state reaches 70 percent it could remove the vast majority of restrictions imposed because of the pandemic before June 30, when the state is set to reopen regardless of the percentage.

“(It’s) pretty exciting to know 4 million people have additional protection in our state,” Inslee said. He added when the threshold is hit, restrictions would be removed “essentially immediately.”

Some parts of the state have passed the threshold already, as Inslee mentioned Seattle is the “most vaccinated large city in the United States,” with 70 percent of residents 12 and older fully vaccinated.

When the threshold or the deadline is met, Inslee said the state will continue capacity restrictions for large indoor events, holding them at 75 percent capacity for venues that can hold more than 10,000 attendees. Masks would still be required, although physical distancing requirements would be removed. He added COVID-19 mitigation measures will continue at schools at the discretion of districts and higher education institutions.

Inslee said that masking and travel guidance would remain in effect, largely mirroring what’s laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The press conference happened the day after the first drawing in the state’s “Shot of a Lifetime” vaccine incentive program, where a number of prizes are handed out to those who have been vaccinated in Washington. Inslee said the state did see an uptick in vaccinations since the lottery went into effect, with Monday showing the largest single day of appointment bookings over the last two weeks.

He noted the state is still working on getting vaccination information from the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, though outside of that happening, the state may implement its own standalone incentive program for those vaccinated through those departments

The state has added the aggregate number of doses delivered by those departments to the statewide total, Inslee said, accounting for about 152,000 more Washingtonians.

Inslee said the vaccination rates in the state are because of growing confidence among residents.

“It’s understandable that some people have wanted to hold back for a while to see how this has unfolded, but what they have seen is unbridled success,” Inslee said.

Governor announces new head of state Employment Security Department

Also during the press conference, Inslee announced the appointment of Cami Feek as the Washington State Employment Security Department Commissioner.

Meek served as interim commissioner since February, following the exit of former commissioner Suzi LeVine, who now serves in the Biden Administration in the U.S. Department of Labor.

Inslee said Feek was the “obvious choice” for commissioner, noting she has worked for 25 years in state government with experience “perfect” for the position. He mentioned she was the first director of the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave program during what he called an “amazingly successful” launch.

The ESD has come under scrutiny because of fraudulent unemployment insurance claims which totaled more than $600 million in 2020. Feek pointed to a few developments since she assumed the interim role, including the prevention of another unemployment insurance claims fraud attack in May. The number of claims issued have increased and the training program for those who handle the process has also improved, Feek said.

“We faced, and continue to face, the greatest unemployment crisis since the Great Depression,” Feek said, pledging she is “committed to applying all we’ve learned in this crisis to increase equitable access” to the department’s services.

Feek said her goals include hiring more employees to handle initial claims and adjudication, and improving technology and customer service.

Regarding the department’s past failure, Inslee said fraud was “a systemic problem (in) an unprecedented pandemic of an incredibly complex system where people were trying to help people as quickly as they could,” adding other states were also affected.

“There’s not a person to point to, a single reason, one simple thing that we can say, this is why we’re in the situation we’re in,” Feek said. “I think we’re all accountable. I’m accountable to that, and we have a plan to deliver and that’s what we’re moving forward on.”

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