Kenai assembly votes to oppose nonexistent vaccine mandate

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Administration Building (courtesy Kenai Peninsula Borough)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted to oppose any government mandate that would require members of the public to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

But there is no vaccine mandate in the works for Alaska. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said at a press conference last week that he does not plan to require the vaccine when it is ready for distribution, which likely won’t be for a while.

Some assembly members and public commenters brought that up. But the resolution passed anyway because of an amendment introduced at the meeting that changed the rhetoric from outright opposition to support for residents to receive a COVID-19 vaccine “on prioritized and optional basis.”

That language won over Tyson Cox, who had originally moved to table the resolution.

“I do not feel this is necessary. I don’t feel that it’s something that we need to highlight at this point because we do not have a mandate coming forward,” he said. “There is no mandate planned in sight. It’s a little bit of paranoia to start going down that road. But I will be voting ‘yes’ on this because I would rather vote ‘yes’ on this, leaving the whereases and having a positive statement, than having something else come forward in the future.”

Still, the resolution includes language that contradicts those affirmative statements. One clause says there are “many people” who fear the potentially harmful effects of a COVID-19 vaccine. Another clause says that requiring the public to be vaccinated would face resistance during “an already volatile time in history.”

The resolution was presented by Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and assembly members Jesse Bjorkman and Bill Elam. Elam said he hoped the resolution put to rest concerns he heard from constituents about the potential for a vaccine mandate.

Several commenters said they worried that the resolution would spread misinformation. Justin Ruffridge, from Soldotna Professional Pharmacy and the Soldotna City Council, said resolutions like these make his job harder.

“There’s no end to fear and misinformation when it comes to COVID-19. As a highly accessible healthcare practitioner, I have not had a day off since Labor Day. And it’s been every day, seven days a week. Educate, test, test, educate,” he said. “Most people have some version of misinformation which we have to work through at every interaction, and we’re doing somewhere between 20 and 25 of those a day. My concern is that any resolution that has the words ‘oppose’ and ‘vaccine’ in the same sentence will ultimately be misunderstood by the members of the public.”

Ruffridge said he supported the affirmative language of the amendment.

Several assembly members who originally spoke in opposition to the mandate were swayed by Bjorkman’s amendment. The resolution passed with eight “yes” votes and one “no” vote. That vote came from Lane Chesley.

The resolution will be sent to Gov. Dunleavy and Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink. It is unclear what it will actually do, since there is no vaccine available and no vaccine mandate in the works. As a second-class borough, the Kenai Peninsula Borough does not have policing or health powers.