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

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Bethel residents have called recent city council meetings to express concern over the way the Bethel Police Department has handled Juanita Nick’s sexual assault case. (Photo courtesy of the Bethel Police Department)

The city of Bethel could soon lose nearly half of its police force following a new vaccination mandate. The mandate announced Monday gives city workers two weeks to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The term takes effect on September 27.

Only 16 of the 105 employees of the city of Bethel are not vaccinated. This means that 84.7% of the city’s employees are vaccinated, but almost half of the police force is not.

Half of the police who are not vaccinated do not live in Bethel. Instead, the six unvaccinated agents come in and out – working two weeks, two weeks off. The city adopted this schedule after struggling to retain officers. The city currently has 14 agents.

City human resources director James Harris said two of the unvaccinated agents live in Wasilla and the other four reside in the state of Georgia. Wasilla has some of the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission as is. The Southeastern United States, where Georgia is located, has some of the highest COVID-19 transmission rates in the countryside.

So why don’t the officers want to be vaccinated? Olivia Ebertz from KYUK spoke to the two who live in Wasilla. Officer Skyler Smith said he opposed the vaccine on religious grounds.

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

Smith did not elaborate on his beliefs and only identified himself as a non-denominational Christian. Smith recognizes the reality of the virus and has tested positive for COVID-19 in the past. He said he would ask for a religious exemption.

Investigator Vincent Garay, also from Wasilla, said he also did not want to be vaccinated.

“I am severely, severely allergic to aspirin. I don’t want to die, ”Garay said.

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

The city offers medical exemptions, which Garay plans to seek. They must be signed by a physician indicating that the patient has a valid concern. Garay said he would also seek a religious exemption.

“I’m Catholic. We don’t even believe in abortion and divorce. Or aren’t Catholics allowed to have exemptions? Do you even know what’s in the vaccine? “I’ve even heard that there are even aborted fetuses. It’s against my religion if that is the case,” Garay said.

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

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

So, although Garay has said he cannot get the vaccine because of his Catholic faith, it will not legally hold in the city. Harris said he called the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on September 15.

“I specifically asked: ‘Does the Catholic faith forbid vaccination? And the response I got immediately was, “No, we don’t; in fact, we encourage it, ”said Harris.

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

Garay and Smith both say they have been in contact with lawyers about the warrant. Smith said he could take legal action.

“If I’m fired, I could take legal action against the city,” Smith said.

City prosecutor Elizabeth “Libby” Bakalar said the mandate was “legally sound and fully defensible”. The largest employer in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, also has a vaccination mandate. And the Biden administration has issued warrants for the military, federal workers and large private companies.

If Garay, Smith, and the other unvaccinated Bethel police officers are all laid off when the immunization mandate goes into effect, the police force will be nearly halved. Harris said it’s important to think about who Bethel will lose if they are made redundant.

“Unvaccinated people who don’t even live in Bethel, who are not from Bethel, who commute between the lower 48 every two weeks, travel unvaccinated and interact with this general public with greater intensity than anyone. one could interact with the general public, ”said Harris.

CDC says unvaccinated people are on five times as likely to spread COVID-19 as people who have been vaccinated.

Police Chief Richard Simmons said he was caught in the middle. He said that on the one hand, City Manager Pete Williams, who wrote and signed the warrant, is his boss, and he appreciates the security he offers. But on the other hand, he fears losing nearly half of his staff. Simmons himself is vaccinated.

“We understand that living in one of the most violent communities in the country, we need our police officers. So what is the real threat facing the police service? Simmons asked.

Williams said the city will do very well.

“We are always worried that we don’t have enough officers. But you know, in the past we’ve only had five officers. I know that means a slower response time and cases are being processed a bit slower, but we got away with it, ”said Williams.


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