Head Start closes due to staff shortage

RaeLynn Ricarte
Staff Writer

The Head Start program in Colville was shut down last week due to a workforce shortage tied to Gov. Inslee’s vaccination mandate.
Ten employees of Rural Resources Community Action had received medical or religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, but there were no accommodations that could be made for them to work with unvaccinated children, said Donna Moulton, chief executive officer of the agency.
She said state and federal funding streams would have been threatened if Rural Resources allowed the employees to continue with their duties in that situation.
“We haven’t denied anyone an exemption but we just couldn’t make accommodations to utilize the exemption the way the job needed to be performed,” she said.
Laying off that many workers at one time was enough loss of manpower to force closure of the early learning center for the time being, said Moulton.
It is uncertain when the facility will reopen, she said.
Rural Resources is now looking at all of its programs as Inslee’s Oct. 18 deadline for workers to be fully immunized against COVID approaches. Moulton said provision of other services could be affected if staffing levels go down.
There are a total of 220 employees at the agency headquartered in Colville that serves Northeast Washington, said Moulton.
In roles other than childcare,  she said the religious and medical exemptions granted workers can likely to be accommodated.
For example, she said exempted employees in the unit that works with crime victims can do video visits. Some employees have been working from home since the start of the pandemic, so they also can be accommodated. “This is a very diverse agency so we will have to look at everything to see what we can come up with,” said Moulton. ”We’re trying to be as bold and throw as wide a net as we can in coming up with accommodations.”
However, she said if accommodations don’t align with state and federal funding stream requirements, then programs could be threatened by allowing exemption employees to remain in their roles. Rural Resources must follow OSHA and Bureau of Industries guidelines to remain in compliance with government funding, she said. 
“Everything seems to be constantly changing  and it’s created a lot of uncertainty,” summarized Moulton.
Because Rural Resources provides resources to some of the most vulnerable populations, she is concerned that a worker shortage will most hurt those who are already on the margins.
“Trying to see the potential impact — I don’t have crystal ball that big,” she said. 
Dr. Sam Artzis, health officer for Northeast Tri County Health, said at Friday’s press briefing that there is real concern about staff shortages at all hospitals and medical clinics in the region after Oct. 18. Inslee has said that workers not fully immunized by hat date will lose their jobs.
Medical facilities have already been struggling with worker shortages, said Artzis, so losing any more employees jeopardizes the capacity of health care systems to care for the large number of incoming COVID patients. There are currently 325 people with COVID hospitalized at the nine facilities in the region, with 75 in ICU.
“It’s going to be a real challenge for the hospitals going forward,” he said.
Although the spike in COVID cases is leveling out, Artzis said numbers remain high and people need to continue to mask up, practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings and get vaccinated. 
Stevens County’s vaccination rate stands at 39% of those who have received at least one shot, according to state statistics.
Only one county in Washington is lower at this time, with Skamania County at a 36% rate of those who have gotten at least one shot.
In Ferry County, 54% of the population has received at least one shot, and that number is 40% in Pend Oreille.
Tri County Health reports that, in September, 1,700 individuals within its jurisdiction were confirmed positive for COVID. That count did not include positive results from at-home test kits that were not reported.
Of the known cases, 186 involved fully vaccinated people who still contracted the disease, a rate of about 11%.
Ninety-seven people in September required hospitalization, about 6% of the total case count, and eight of these individuals were fully vaccinated.
The health district lists 49 deaths in September probable or confirmed to have been caused by COVID. Of these deaths, 10 occurred in fully vaccinated individuals, with the average age of 84. 
As of Friday, most people contracting the Delta variant of COVID in August and early September were 40-50 years of age, although in the latter part of September and early October there have been more cases in the 20-39 age range.
As of press time Monday, Stevens County had a total of 4,620 lab-confimed cases of COVID, with 77 deaths.
Ferry County had a total of 701 cases and 13 deaths, with Pend Oreille’s total number of cases at 1,419 and 19 deaths.
Vaccine locations can be found at www.netchd.org.