Assembly: Get the COVID vaccine, if you want to

The Assembly supports borough residents getting a COVID-19 vaccine “on a prioritized and optional basis”

The Kenai Peninsula Borough building in Soldotna, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion file photo)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough building in Soldotna, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion file photo)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted Wednesday to support borough residents getting a COVID-19 vaccine “on a prioritized and optional basis” after the original resolution, which opposed government mandates requiring members of the public to get the vaccine, was amended.

The resolution was sponsored by assembly members Jesse Bjorkman and Bill Elam, as well as by Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce.

As originally proposed, the resolution was titled, “Opposing Any Governmental Mandate Requiring Members of the Public to be Inoculated with a COVID-19 Vaccine.” Bjorkman proposed an amendment, which the assembly adopted, that changed the title to, “Supporting Kenai Peninsula Borough Residents to Receive a COVID-19 Vaccine on a Prioritized and Optional Basis,” as well as section one of the resolution.

Bjorkman said the goal of the legislation is to ensure no one is forced to get the COVID-19 vaccine if they don’t want it.

“Because tensions are so high about many issues right now, mandates will not be received well by a large portion of the public and the goal of this resolution is to have vaccines be optional and not mandated,” Bjorkman said. “It’s clear through the whereas clauses as well an amendment that I’m making … that the borough [supports] folks having access to the vaccine, but we want to definitely make sure that it is prioritized and optional.”

Pierce said news of new vaccine developments was positive.

“This administration is not trying to discourage anyone from choosing to have a vaccine, but we do believe that’s a personal choice that you need to make,” Pierce said.

Three people who attended the assembly meeting, which was held remotely via Zoom, spoke on the resolution.

Justin Ruffridge, who is a city council member on the Soldotna City Council and owns and operates Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, said he has been battling misinformation surrounding COVID-19 throughout the pandemic and that the original resolution may further confuse people. Specifically, Ruffridge noted that there is currently no plan to make a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory in Alaska and that even when a vaccine is released, health care providers will struggle to accommodate the volume of people who will want to be vaccinated.

“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. “People will wrongly assume that there is a plan to vaccinate them if they don’t want it or that there’s conspiracy to give them something they don’t want.”

Bill Elam, one of the resolution’s co-sponsors, said that he was approached by constituents during the election cycle who said they were worried about a COVID-19 vaccine being mandatory.

“I realize that ‘mandated’ isn’t coming from anybody but there’s a lot of people out there that think that it is,” Elam said. “I feel like, as a borough, we have an opportunity to say, ‘Hey guys, we’re not going to force anything on you,’ even though, like people have mentioned, it’s not necessarily something that can happen.”

Many assembly members said they liked Bjorkman’s amendment.

Assembly Member Willy Dunne said that he appreciated the resolution being amended into a positive statement but was still reluctant to support it due to the timing, saying that he expects there will be more information about the COVID vaccine in the coming weeks.

“I was very frustrated with the original language because it just seemed to create more divisiveness and try to feed the fear, but now it has been amended into a positive statement: that we do support our residents getting vaccinated,” Dunne said.

Assembly member Tyson Cox said that while he also appreciated Bjorkman’s amendment, he still didn’t think the resolution was 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 — there is no mandate planned in sight,” Cox said. “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 … having it a positive statement, than having something else come forward in the future.”

Every assembly member voted in favor of the resolution except for Lane Chesley, who represents Homer.

Chesley pointed out that on the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services website, it explicitly says there are no plans for a vaccine mandate in the state. The state submitted a draft of their 53-page COVID-19 Vaccination Plan to the CDC on Oct. 16, which is published on the DHSS website.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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