Unvaccinated Bethel city employees demand more time to consider vaccine mandate

Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

City of Bethel employees have a week to either get their first COVID-19 vaccine dose or get fired. Most city employees are already vaccinated; less than 15% are not. Part of the unvaccinated minority is demanding more time and more education to learn about the vaccine. 

On Sept. 20, the City of Bethel hosted an education session for its unvaccinated employees to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine. It was held with Dr. Coleman Cutchins, a state pharmacist and specialist in infectious diseases with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. It’s the second vaccine education session since the vaccine mandate was announced.

The first was held on Friday, Sept. 17, with a local physician from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. Dr. Elizabeth Roll gave a presentation and answered questions about the vaccine’s safety, efficacy, and development. Following the question and answer session, some city employees said that they felt they better understood the vaccines and were leaning towards getting the shot. However, they continue to demand either a policy restart that would include the workers in developing a vaccine mandate, or they want an extension on the current policy’s deadline.

Some of the unvaccinated employees say that their beliefs are being represented by a de facto spokesperson. 

“The employees have found some reason to find me as a voice for them or a leader in them,” said Corbin Ford, the foreman of the city’s maintenance department.

Ford said that some employees are coming from an extremely low level of scientific knowledge, and that has been holding them back from getting vaccinated. 

“RNA. They can’t even tell you what DNA means,” said Ford.  

City administration said that it has provided all city employees with educational materials about the vaccine. The city’s human resources director sent KYUK a list of 26 COVID-19 related items that he said were educational and should have provided forewarning to the vaccine mandate. All of these items had been emailed to all employees since March 3, 2020. It included two prior COVID-19 vaccine education webinars with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. The COVID-19 vaccines have been available in Bethel to the general public for over eight months.

But the unvaccinated employees continue to demand further instruction and more time, which is why the city provided another education session on Sept. 20. Ford had requested that an epidemiologist attend the session. He said that the session on Sept. 17 led by Dr. Roll did not provide specific epidemiological responses to some of his questions.

Ford said that he intends to get vaccinated. He says that could be as soon as Sept. 20 or Sept. 21, along with a handful of other employees. He said that he hopes that could spur a wave of more vaccinations among employees. But Ford also said that if the city does not extend its policy he intends to quit anyway, on principle. 

“The policy gives that bad taste in your mouth. There is a defiant piece in every human being. Stubbornness in every human being that some of the individuals might have that oppositional defiance: ‘You’ve told me what I have to do, and I’m not going to do it because I need to make a stand,’” said Ford. 

Ford said that the city needs to cater to the oppositional defiance that exists in its unvaccinated workers. He said that the city should work around this by including workers in the decision making process far in advance, or at the minimum give them 60 days to adjust to the new policy. The current policy had given the employees two weeks to get their first dose of the vaccine.

The unvaccinated employees’ requests for more time comes while the health care system in Alaska is overwhelmed. Nearly every ICU bed is full, and health care workers are pleading with the public to get vaccinated. Last week, Alaska hit its highest numbers for COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations ever. The city workers’ requests for more question and answer sessions with doctors and epidemiologists come amid reports of health care worker shortages and burnout

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. President Biden could soon announce vaccine mandates for airline passengers

As of Sept. 17, the city of Bethel had 104 employees and 15 of them were unvaccinated. That number includes nearly half the police force.

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