Ray Southwell testifies before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in support of legislation opposing government-mandated vaccines on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021 at the George A. Navarre Admin Building in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Ray Southwell testifies before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in support of legislation opposing government-mandated vaccines on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021 at the George A. Navarre Admin Building in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

COVID divisions shape heated testimony

After raucous meeting, assembly tables resolution on ‘vaccine segregation’.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly stretched nearly to midnight after the body heard hours of public testimony regarding COVID-19, including legislation addressing vaccine mandates and discussions of controversial treatment methods for the disease.

Though the assembly formally considered two pieces of legislation that addressed COVID-19, much of the public debate, which came during designated public comment time at the beginning of the meeting and for each piece of legislation, addressed the pandemic more broadly. The comments ranged from discussions about alternative treatments for the virus to comparisons of mandates to Nazi Germany and were delivered to a mostly unmasked room.

“The public discussion has started,” said Ray Southwell, of Nikiski, who testified in opposition to COVID-19 mandates.

Southwell was one of multiple audience members who thanked Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce for his comments during the assembly’s previous meeting that questioned the way Central Peninsula Hospital treats patients with COVID-19.

While treatment of COVID-19 by Central Peninsula Hospital was discussed in a work session immediately prior to the assembly meeting, neither piece of legislation considered addressed alternative treatments.

Up first for consideration by the assembly was Resolution 2021-070, which would have amended the borough’s spending plan for funds received through the DHSS’ COVID-19 Community Funding grant program. That program, launched earlier this year, aims to help municipalities around the state expand their COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts. The Kenai Peninsula Borough received over $2 million through the program. Included in the spending plan is supplemental funding for Central Peninsula Hospital and South Peninsula Hospital for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and the purchase of personal protective equipment for fire service areas.

Justin Ruffridge, who serves on the Soldotna City Council and owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, challenged some pieces of the spending plan in testimony given to the assembly on Tuesday. Ruffridge questioned the use of about $515,000 in funds for the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area for projects including trail lighting and pool lap lanes, and instead suggested that the funds be used for ongoing pandemic response, such as expanding the borough’s COVID-19 testing capacity and for staffing.

“We’re clearly not isolating COVID to the degree that we were earlier in the pandemic and I just think that it’s clear that maybe testing capacity can be expanded,” Ruffridge said Tuesday. “But again, it comes down to dollars and people, and dollars and people are in short supply for everyone these days, it seems.”

A proposal to postpone the legislation for further consideration failed by a vote of 6-2. The legislation as presented was approved by a vote of 7-1 with assembly member Tyson Cox voting in opposition.

Up next for consideration was Resolution 2021-067, which would have stated the borough’s opposition to government-mandated COVID-19 vaccinations and “vaccine segregation.” More specifically, it would also state the borough’s opposition to government mandates requiring proof of vaccination status for access to certain places, with a memo from sponsors saying such mandates “may segregate and divide our community based on vaccine status.”

That legislation, brought forth by Pierce and co-sponsored by assembly members Jesse Bjorkman, Richard Derkevorkian and Bill Elam, was tabled Tuesday night after hours of contentious debate and 35 pages of comments submitted prior to the meeting.

As a second-class borough, the Kenai Peninsula Borough does not have health or policing powers. Second-class boroughs are unable to order citizens to isolate or quarantine, place restrictions on business operations, require citizens to shelter in place, require citizens to wear masks or “similar health mandates.” That’s according to a letter sent by former Kenai Peninsula Borough Attorney Colette Thompson to the state’s acting attorney general last year.

Bjorkman confirmed Monday that the resolution would not nullify COVID-19 mandates instituted by the borough’s incorporated communities, by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District or by employers, but rather would express an opinion generally about mandates.

Those who testified in support of the legislation said it would send an important message that the borough opposes government mandates, while those in opposition called it “divisive.”

James Baisden, who is running for a seat on the Kenai City Council and previously served as Pierce’s chief of staff, said the legislation is important to see where the assembly stands on the issue of mandates.

“This (legislation) isn’t about anything except for a voice of this borough assembly stating that you don’t support this forced vaccination, which is coming,” Baisden said. “It’s coming in all directions and that’s not what we stand for.”

Pierce, who has publicly advocated for the use of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, asked Dr. Kristin Mitchell, who works at CPH and testified Tuesday, what the harm is in trying alternative treatments. Mitchell pushed back and said that she would “encourage” Pierce to not give medical advice to people in the borough. The harm, Mitchell said, from using alternative treatments is seen when people delay their care while using an alternative treatment.

“Alternative treatments that cause people to delay known proven effective treatments, like the monoclonal antibody, do have harm,” Mitchell said. “I’m aware of cases within Alaska where people have taken alternative treatments, delayed more effective monoclonal antibody treatment that we have better data about and have been more ill probably than they needed to be because they delayed effective treatments.”

Pierce went on to say that he thinks government mandates will cause issues in the future and that he supports borough residents seeking treatment options outside of the borough “if that’s what (they) have to do” to have confidence in that treatment. The division over COVID-19, Pierce said, is not unique to the Kenai Peninsula, but that healing the division must start with rebuilding public trust in health care institutions.

“What you’re about to see in America, I think, is a second pandemic,” Pierce said. “It’s going to be a huge shift, or division between employer and employee and it’s going to come about from a mandate from the federal government.”

An amendment written by Bjorkman, but that was not introduced Tuesday, would have added to the legislation language stating that Bjorkman, Elam, Pierce and assembly members Willy Dunne and Brent Johnson have all been vaccinated against COVID-19 and that they “believe it to be the most effective prevention against COVID-19.” The amendment would have also stated that the assembly “strongly encourages” all residents to be vaccinated.

Derkevorkian said that he opposes government mandates and that “less government is the best government.”

“This is a simple decision for me,” Derkevorkian said. “You’re either on Team America, the land of the free, and you can join me on the record opposing government mandates, or you can align with the tyrants and governments like Australia.”

Assembly Vice President Brent Johnson pushed back against Derkevorkian’s comments and said they run counter to the legislation’s goal of bringing the community together.

“I hear things like ‘Are you going to align with us or are you going to align with the tyrants?’” Johnson said. “That doesn’t sound like equality, equity, compassion, communal kindness and understanding to me.”

Johnson went on to say that he isn’t afraid to vote against the legislation, adding “and it isn’t because I’m a tyrant” and likening vaccine mandates to other mandates already in place, such as for seat belts and airbags in cars and other vaccines that are already required.

The debate came on the heels of an hourlong work session between the assembly and people with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and Central Peninsula Hospital, including Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, Dr. Coleman Cutchins, Dr. Joe McLaughlin and Dr. John Bramante, of Central Peninsula Internal Medicine at CPH.

The assembly ultimately voted to table the legislation after the motion to do so was made by Bjorkman. Tabling the legislation means it will be put on the assembly’s list of pending legislation, where it will stay until it is removed or until after the next municipal election, when it would “fall off the table,” Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship said during Tuesday’s meeting. The motion to table passed by a vote of 5-3, with assembly members Cox, Dunne and Chesley voting in opposition.

The meeting, which lasted five-and-a-half hours, ran the assembly up against its time limit for meetings. Borough code 22.40.200 says that “the assembly shall take no official action after 11:30 p.m.” Tuesday’s meeting was adjourned at 11:30 p.m., immediately after the Mayor’s Report.

Tuesday’s full assembly meeting can be viewed on the borough website at kpb.legistar.us.

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

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