The Kitsap Public Health Board took public comment on Tuesday about vaccine mandates for local businesses.
Although the board appears to be leaning toward not implementing a mandate, the question of vaccine mandates was the subject of discussion at a special board meeting last week after the health district recommended implementing a mandate on indoor businesses similar to the ones in effect in King, Clallam and Jefferson counties.
Although the board heard from the public on Tuesday, it deferred any possible action until its next scheduled board meeting on Nov. 2. Although the board didn't appear to be any more likely to enact a mandate than it did last week, Board member and Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler proposed a motion outlining the board’s recommendation that people get vaccinated, and that businesses voluntarily impose vaccination mandates for employees or customers, but making it clear that the board was not requiring businesses to do so.
Board member and Kitsap County Commissioner Ed Wolfe noted that he had only had about 10 minutes to look at the draft and said he needed more time to look it over.
Board member and Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson said she wanted to wait to see what kind of rules OSHA puts out. “I’d like to get a little more information about what the feds are going to do which might trump us in all of this,” she said. “I mean, if the feds are really going to put the OSHA rules out — and we might know that in a couple weeks — that will be material in our decision making. … I want to be very clear here, however, I do not believe in … vaccine passports getting into businesses. My concern is what we're going to do with what I see coming down from the federal government at the local level.”
The board ultimately tabled Wheeler's motion.
Dr. Gib Morrow offered a COVID-19 status update at the beginning of the meeting, noting that cases remain elevated in Kitsap County, “well into the CDC’s ‘high transmission’ range.”
The county continues to see approximately 700 new cases of COVID each day, with seven-day case rates per 100,000 people up to more than 200. Although cases are declining slightly among the general population, the health district is seeing the disease spread more rapidly in the school-age cohort, he said. The net result is a “pretty high plateau with lots of ongoing disease spread, particularly in south Kitsap and Bremerton, followed by central Kitsap and north Kitsap, and to a far lesser extent, Bainbridge.”
The rise of the Delta variant has been tough on schools, because it spreads more readily among children, Morrow said. “This has been tough on schools which are working hard to contain cases and keep classrooms open,” he said, noting that health district staff regularly meet with school leaders to provide technical assistance.
“To the parents out there, we really encourage you to get yourselves vaccinated if you haven’t already,” Morrow said. “Get your kids vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible, education your kids about the importance of masking and distancing, and consent upfront to testing for your children,” he said, noting that schools offer free COVID testing for their students.
The current surge of COVID cases in the county dwarves all the others the county has experienced thus far when it comes to hospitalizations and deaths, Morrow said. Since July 2 of this year, there have been 385 hospitalizations of Kitsap residents. About 45 percent of nearly 700 Kitsap County residents who have been hospitalized have been admitted to the hospital in the past three months, he said.
Addressing a concern that came up at the board’s special meeting last week — long waits for EMS workers to admit patients into St. Michael Medical Center in Silverdale — Morrow was happy to report that the health district is going to staff two RN-level positions to help speed up EMS transfers at the hospital’s emergency department. “We’re very hopeful this is going to happen this week and help keep our EMS ambulances available, out and throughout the community for those who need them immediately,” he said.
This week, the county hit the “grim milestone” of 200 deaths, Morrow said. More than one third of all deaths the county has experienced so far in the pandemic have occurred in the past two months, and the number will almost certainly rise over the next few weeks as September’s deaths continue to be investigated and reported, he said. County data shows unvaccinated individuals under age 60 are 20 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who are vaccinated, and individuals older than 60 are five times more likely to be hospitalized than those who are vaccinated, he added.
Morrow said that although neither the health board nor the health district have mandated vaccination requirements for businesses such as indoor restaurants, bars and gyms, the district will continue to recommend that local businesses and government agencies consider voluntarily requiring vaccinations for their employees and patrons "or taking whatever approach works best for them to get employees vaccinated."
"Because this is the best way to keep businesses open, safe, busy, and productive," he said. "We will provide technical advice and support to those businesses and also provide guidance, consultation and support to those businesses and governmental organizations with over 100 employees, which are currently required to implement mandatory vaccination through current federal regulations.”
Wolfe asked Morrow about natural immunity: “How is natural immunity factored into our local science decision-making process regarding vaccines?” he asked. “For example, one had COVID, developed antibodies to COVID, how is that factored into our process if at all?”
Morrow responded by saying that the Institute for Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) out of Seattle has shown that a relatively small percent of the total immunity seen in Kitsap County is from natural immunity.
Additionally, he said the Director of the National Institute of Health has referenced evidence that, by his assessment, shows that "natural immunity is not as robust as one would get from a vaccine mediated immunity,” he said.
"I think that it’s not fully definitive at this point, and again I think it’s really important to acknowledge uncertainty where there is some, but most experts feel that the degree of immunity from natural infection is not quite as good as you would get from vaccines, and we do know that getting people vaccinated who have had prior infection is essentially just a good effective power-boost to the immune system that keeps folks healthier," Morrow said.
Wolfe also asked if there’s scientific evidence that vaccinated people are less likely to spread the disease to others in public.
Morrow’s response: Absolutely.
“Not only are people who are fully vaccinated one-fifth as likely to acquire disease, they are less likely to transmit it,” he said. “The evidence from that is still coming in, and I understand that people get confused and frustrated by the evolution of our body of knowledge as we acquire it.”
Studies out of Singapore show that while fully vaccinated individuals can become infected and can show as high a viral load as unvaccinated individuals on an initial COVID test, additional daily testing shows that the viral load drops off much more rapidly in people who are fully vaccinated, Morrow said.
“People who are fully vaccinated are not only less likely to get it, but they’re less likely to spread it,” he said. “I’m not sure that we know that with 100 percent certainty at this point, but all evidence points very strongly in that direction.”
The public comments heard on Tuesday were almost entirely opposed to vaccine mandates; of the 26 residents who spoke, only two spoke in favor of mandates.
Each speaker had two minutes to voice their opinion to the board. Many of the comments centered on bodily autonomy, concern that a mandate would harm small businesses, or that firing unvaccinated healthcare workers would exacerbate existing staffing shortages at local healthcare providers. Some comments asserted thoroughly debunked misinformation, such as that the mRNA vaccines are a gene therapy or that the vaccines are killing people.
One speaker, who said he worked at St. Michael Hospital (although we haven't verified that), expressed concern that a vaccination mandate for employers would result in hospital workers being let go, exacerbating an already serious shortage of workers at the hospital.
"My concern is regarding the mandates; we’re taking staff away," he said. "It’ll be peril. I’ll be honest with you, I’m there, in the middle of the night, all day — we work our rear end off. We are the only intervening hospital on the entire peninsula if you have a heart attack. We, myself and the doctor, as well as the nursing staff as well to sedate the patients, we’re the ones that fix it. And I, myself, personally, I will not be getting this vaccine and to have it mandated, you're going to lose me and you’re going to lose a great deal of people right in our department here ... And folks, I have seen issues with the vaccine myself, personally. Personally, folks. It isn’t all roses."
Another speaker said he was a minority small business owner in Kitsap County and that he was concerned about the impact of a mandate on local businesses such as his.
"It's been a tough couple years for all small businesses, obviously," he said. "We’ve had to pivot multiple times, change our business models, what we offer and how we offer it, to staffing issues. As we know now, staffing has become a major problem for everyone ... All of the restrictions put into place since last March have made it difficult for small businesses to survive."
Imposing a vaccination requirement to enter small businesses in Kitsap would be a further burden on small businesses, he said. "How does it make sense for a 17-year-old restaurant hostess, for example, to be the one in charge of viewing your medical records to eat Chinese food? What happened to medical privacy? Will business owners need to train their staff to discriminate those who choose not to be vaccinated? What about those with medical and religious exemptions? The logistics don’t make sense and aren’t manageable for any business. So help me understand how you ensure segregation, discrimination, and microagression won’t be the result of a move like this. Is this truly the best way to serve our community in a time when diversity and inclusion is most needed?"
Speaking in favor of both vaccine and masking mandates, one speaker said he believed those urging against mandates were a “very vocal minority” who “certainly are entitled to their own opinion, but I’m not sure they’re entitled to their own set of facts. Anyone’s right to swing their arm stops when it hits my nose. And that’s how I feel about all of this, is that we want to survive this pandemic, but we need everybody to get on board.”
He urged the board to pass a mandate, saying, “I believe it’s what the voting public would want as opposed to the vocal minority that stands outside waving posters.” He concluded by asking, “How many more lives can we save? How many lives do we need to lose before we finally relent and put on more mandates?”