As COVID-19 cases continue to climb and vaccination rates stagnate on the peninsula and across the state, a small group of demonstrators gathered in Soldotna on Saturday to protest vaccine and COVID-mitigation mandates.
“Our liberties are being taken away one at a time,” protester Kevin Hall said.
At around 1:30 p.m. there were 17 demonstrators gathered with handmade signs at the “Y” intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways. Hall said the majority of the group had been there since around 11 a.m.
His sign read “coercion is not consent.” Some others said “my body my choice” and “nurses call their own shots.”
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy hasn’t instituted a statewide mask mandate throughout the course of the pandemic. Rather, he’s repeatedly said masking is up to individual governments and communities.
Furthermore, there is no statewide vaccine mandate. Not even Public Health requires its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Hall said he wasn’t just protesting mandatory vaccines, but that he was out showing his disapproval of what he described as general government overreach.
“We’re part of a group of people who are trying to defend our liberty and our freedom in this country,” Hall said. “This is just another example of government overreach, and the government going to places where they have no business.”
Regarding the vaccines, Hall said he felt they were rushed to the market.
Dr. Coleman Cutchins, a clinical pharmacist with the state, said during a press briefing last week that coronavirus vaccine technology has been in development for the better part of the past two decades.
The vaccine for SARS-CoV-1, according to Cutchins, was developed between 2000 and 2004. Additionally, mRNA technology has been in development since 1989, and made significant progress between 2011 and 2012. In 2015, mRNA vaccines were first tested in humans.
But for Hall, the protest was about his principles.
“It’s not just about a vaccine, or so-called vaccine,” he said. “It’s the whole government.” When asked what he thought about the reliability of COVID-19 mitigation guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health and Social Services, he said he doesn’t generally choose to follow it.
“The CDC themselves has walked back on many, many, many of the things that they’ve said were fact,” Hall said. “And then a week later they say ‘Oh, wait a minute, we were wrong.’ So there’s too many mixed messages. I don’t believe anything the CDC says anymore.”
In early summer, when COVID cases were at an all-time low, the CDC lifted its mask guidance in indoor spaces for fully vaccinated people. By the third week of July, the department reversed the lift, recommending that even fully vaccinated people mask up indoors due to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.
Hall said he’s taken vaccines before, and would even consider getting the COVID jab after it received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
“I mean, this is not all new stuff,” Hall said. “I have taken vaccines in the past and I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I’m not in that camp. I’m not even anti-this. I’m anti-telling me what to do. I’m anti-coercion.”
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine for emergency use in anyone 12 and older. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are approved for emergency use in anyone 18 and older.
Emergency use authorization means the vaccines are no longer experimental or investigational.
Jennifer Eastman was one of the organizers of Saturday’s protest in Soldotna. She said she was disappointed to hear that some people across the state and nation were having to choose between getting a COVID-19 vaccine and losing their jobs.
“The general sentiment seems to be that ‘Well, we kind of care but not enough that you can wait two months for FDA approval — you have to get it now or lose your job,’” Eastman said Saturday. “And that’s, I think, a terrible position to put people in.”
She said her main purpose for organizing was to show support for anyone with reservations about immediately getting the COVID jab.
“We’re not opposed to people getting it,” Eastman said. “I think everybody who wants to absolutely should — that’s their right. And the people who want a little more information, some people want to wait until FDA approval, I think they absolutely are entitled to that.”
Eastman at Saturday’s demonstration had a petition opposing COVID-19 mandatory vaccination that she said she was planning to send to local and state lawmakers, including Dunleavy and U.S. representatives.
She said the response to the protest seemed “pretty favorable.”
“We just want to make sure that those that are hesitant are able to be hesitant,” Eastman said. “I’ve just spoken with some people that (full FDA approval) is their main reservation at this point. So I think that’ll resolve for some people once there’s more research.”
COVID-19 vaccines are available for free at the Kenai Fire Department, Soldotna Wednesday Market, multiple state airports, pharmacies in Walmart and Walgreens, and the Soldotna Professional Pharmacy walk-in clinic.