Nearly half of Bethel police are unvaccinated and could lose their jobs

A wooden building with an SUV in front
Bethel Police Department. (Photo courtesy of Bethel Police Department)

The City of Bethel could soon lose nearly half its police force following a new vaccine mandate announced last week.

The mandate gives all city workers, police included, two weeks to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. It takes effect Sept. 27.

Only 16 out of the City of Bethel’s 105 total employees are unvaccinated, or about 15%. But six of the unvaccinated workers are police, and they make up about half of the city’s police force.

Those six officers don’t live in Bethel full-time. Instead, they fly in and out — working two weeks on, two weeks off. The city adopted the schedule after struggling to retain police. The city currently has 14 officers.

The city’s human resources director, James Harris, said that two of the unvaccinated officers live in Wasilla, and the other four live in the state of Georgia. Wasilla has some of the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in the state. Also, the Southeastern United States has some of the highest COVID-19 transmission rates in the country.

So why don’t the officers want to get vaccinated?

KYUK’s Olivia Ebertz spoke to the two officers who live in Wasilla. Officer Skyler Smith said that he opposes the vaccine on religious grounds.

“I don’t want anything injected in my body,” said Smith.

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Smith would not specify his beliefs and would only identify himself as a non-denominational Christian. Smith acknowledged the reality of the virus and has tested positive for COVID-19 in the past. He said that he will apply for a religious exemption.

Investigator Vincent Garay, also of Wasilla, said that he doesn’t want to get the vaccine either.

“I am severely, severely allergic to aspirin. I do not want to die,” said Garay.

None of the COVID-19 vaccines contain aspirin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages vaccinations for people with allergies to oral medication. The CDC advises avoiding the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines only if you have a severe allergy to polyethylene glycol, an ingredient in the mRNA vaccines. Often if you have an allergy to one ingredient in one vaccine, another vaccine should be safe for you.

The city is offering medical exemptions, which Garay plans to apply for. They must be signed by a medical doctor saying that the patient has a valid concern. Garay said that he’ll also apply for a religious exemption.

“I am Catholic,” said Garay. “We don’t even believe in abortion and divorce. Or is it that Catholics are not allowed to have exemptions? Do you even know what’s in the vaccine? I even heard that it has even aborted fetuses in it. That’s against my religion if it has.”

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None of the COVID-19 vaccines have aborted or other fetal cells in them, although there were decades-old aborted fetal cell lines used in the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Two other COVID-19 vaccines, from companies Pfizer and Moderna, are offered in Bethel.

Harris, the city’s human resources director, said that all religious exemptions go through an internal review process to make sure that they are valid. If an employee says that they have an issue with a policy because of their religion, Harris checks the policy of their religion to make sure that it’s a religious belief, rather than an individual belief. Harris said that these procedures follow anti-discrimination laws.

So although Garay said that he can’t get the vaccine because of his Catholic faith, that won’t legally hold up in the city. Harris said that he called the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on Sept. 15.

“I specifically asked, ‘Does the Catholic faith prohibit vaccination?’ And the answer I got back immediately was, ‘No, we do not. In fact, we encourage it,’” said Harris.

And the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has urged everyone to get vaccinated, calling vaccinations an “act of love.” The pope also said that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is “morally acceptable” for Catholics.

Both Garay and Smith said they’ve been in touch with lawyers about Bethel’s vaccine mandate. Smith said that he could be taking legal action.

“If I am terminated, I could be pursuing a lawsuit against the city,” said Smith.

City Attorney Elizabeth “Libby” Bakalar said that the mandate is “legally sound and fully defensible.” The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s largest employer, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, also has a vaccine mandate. And the Biden administration has issued mandates for the militaryfederal workers and large private businesses.

If Garay, Smith, and the other unvaccinated Bethel police officers are all terminated when the vaccine mandate goes into effect, the police force will be cut nearly in half. Harris said that it’s important to think about who Bethel will be losing if they are terminated.

“Persons who are unvaccinated who don’t even live in Bethel, who are not from Bethel, who are commuting back and forth between the Lower 48 every two weeks, traveling unvaccinated, and are interacting with this general public on the highest intensity that somebody could interact with the general public,” said Harris.

The CDC says that unvaccinated people are about five times as likely to spread COVID-19 than vaccinated people.

Chief of Police Richard Simmons said that he finds himself caught in the middle. He said that on the one hand, City Manager Pete Williams, who wrote and signed the mandate, is his boss, and he appreciates the security it offers. But on the other hand, he’s concerned about losing almost half his staff. Simmons himself is vaccinated.

“We understand living in one of the most violent communities in the nation that we need our police officers. So which one is the real threat that the police department is having to address?” asked Simmons.

Williams said that the city will pull out of this just fine.

“We’re always worried about not having enough officers. But, you know, in the past we’ve been down to as short as five officers,” said Williams. “I know that that means slower response time, and cases get handled a little bit more slowly, but we got by.”

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