SOUTH BEND — Pacific County Commissioners earlier this month left county employees without medical and religious exemptions from covid-19 vaccines after the two north county commissioners objected to the underlying concept of requiring shots.

The Sept. 2 special meeting to consider exemptions quickly turned into a free-for-all of differing opinions.

Many questions, few answers

The meeting opened with a call for public comments, which only generated remarks about issues such as who would decide on exemption requests and the likelihood of the vaccine mandate expanding.

There was ambiguity about who would make individual exemptions, but it would likely be Pacific County Prosecutor Ben Haslam and his office.

“No one decides if a religion is adequate enough,” Haslam said. “In terms of the application of a sincerely held religious belief that prevents a person from being able to comply with a vaccine mandate, I believe the intent is that the department directors will make that decision in consultation with [Risk Manager] Kathy Spoor and myself.”

According to Haslam, several hundreds of years of case law interpretation will dictate how he and department heads will decide whether an employee’s religion and sincerely held beliefs qualify for them to be exempt. The criteria for medical exemptions are expected to be even more narrow, with none even specified during the meeting.

Governor’s edict

Commissioner Lisa Olsen responded directly to a question regarding if the mandate will be expanded, stating, “it’s been the practice of this governor in my view that things get expanded if there’s no pushback and even if there is pushback.”

Spoor added to Olsen’s comment, mentioning that the county often doesn’t find out about moves by Gov. Jay Inslee until he holds a press conference, or so has been the case during the pandemic, Olsen added. She also noted that while the mandate is looming, state employees and unions have pushed back against the Oct. 18 vaccine deadline.

So far, none of these challenges have been successful and they are likely not to be, according to multiple state attorneys.

The nitty-gritty

The short-lived meeting hit its tipping point halfway through when the commissioners reached the point of making a motion. Commissioner Frank Wolfe motioned and was seconded by Runyon, and then the verbal fireworks went off.

Olsen was the first to speak, saying Cowlitz County passed a policy that they would not require any employee to subject themselves to a vaccine as part of employment and that she largely agreed with that approach.

“I’ve been pretty upfront in conversations that I think some of the things in the governor’s edict here are a little subjective, and I don’t think we should be mandating anybody to do anything,” Olsen said. “We can’t discriminate on a whole lot of things when we hire people. I just don’t believe that this is a good practice.”

Taking a similar position, Runyon said he was against enacting any county policy at that point. “I’m not really in favor of passing it, myself.”

Neither Olsen nor Runyon suggested they were against the exemptions themselves, but rather were more concerned about how passing the policy might imply there should be a mandate. Olsen reiterated her opposition to vaccine mandates, while Runyon stated he believes the vaccine should be a choice, even while he continues considering the pros and cons.

Olsen and Runyon asked if Haslam would look over Cowlitz County’s policy. He suggested that the county adopt the policy his office had already designed. However, he agreed he would discuss the matter with Cowlitz County personnel.

“The initial review [of Cowlitz County’s policy], again with about 30 minutes of looking at the Cowlitz resolution, I don’t believe it accurately states the law, and I don’t believe it accurately analyzes the law, and I think what we have given you already is our best advice. I don’t think our opinion is likely to change,” he said.

Not so fast, there are two sides

On the other side of the spectrum, Wolfe completely disagreed with Olsen and Runyon and compared the current vaccine debate to his “right to carry a firearm, but not the right to shoot someone with it.”

“One of the pros and cons here is if you have employees who are not vaccinated, they become more of a risk to get the disease,” Wolfe said. “We know that the disease spreads rather rapidly, which means if an employee decides for whatever reason to not get vaccinated, that is their decision, and they are entitled to it.”

“But at that point, the county has a responsibility to, in some way, help buffer that person who could be spreading the disease from spreading it to other employees,” Wolfe added.

He further noted that national data shows vaccinated people are much less likely to get sick with covid-19, have a less severe illness, and are less likely to spread it.

However, Olsen immediately challenged Wolfe’s comment by suggesting there’s nothing to suggest it stops its spread.

That comment prompted an immediate response from county health director Katie Lindstrom, who suggested in simple terms that Olsen was wrong.

“What they are finding is that people who are vaccinated, who have a breakthrough case, that they do have lower viral loads,” Lindstrom said. “Initially, a viral load is similar, but as the disease progresses around day four or five, the viral load drops significantly for people who are vaccinated. So they are finding it is less likely to spread covid-19 if you do have a breakthrough case, if you are vaccinated, than if you weren’t vaccinated.”

Olsen challenged Lindstrom’s comments, questioning whether asymptomatic people can still spread the disease even if they are vaccinated.

“People can be asymptomatic carriers whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Lindstrom stated. “That happens in both groups, but it’s more likely you’re going to have asymptomatic [spread] if you are vaccinated, but again the actual viral loads around what’s contagious and infectious, there is a difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated cases.”

Lindstrom also added that those who get sick with covid-19 and are vaccinated tend to have significantly fewer symptoms and hospitalizations. “Typically, it’s around day five where if you are going to get a lot worse, you get a lot worse, or if you are going to start improving, you are going to start improving,” she stated, crediting the change to how the viral loads shift.

Call the question!

After hearing Lindstrom’s comment, Olsen spoke to her colleagues and asked what they were going to do. It prompted a direct and stern request for her to call a vote by Wolfe, in which she responded, “excuse me?”

Taking matters into his own hands, Wolfe began calling for a vote before being corrected by Assistant Marie Guernsey that the vote had to be called by Olsen, the commission’s current chair, since he didn’t have the authority to do so.

That tense exchange led to a moment of confusion by everyone in attendance, including Spoor, Guernsey and all three commissioners, who worked to determine where the meeting stood.

Spoor noted that the motion could die without a second, which was quickly ruled out since Runyon had already made the second.

Instead, they all agreed they had to hold a vote to either pass or reject the presented resolution and exemption policy. Olsen and Runyon voted to oppose, and Wolfe voted to approve.

As a result, the resolution and policy failed.

County employees currently do not have any covid-19 vaccine exemption on the books.

Lindstrom asked what she should do or whether she had the authority to discuss the topic with her employees. Haslam noted she did not and that employees could still file for an exemption on their own, but it could not progress.

As it stands, employees will have until Oct. 18 under Inslee’s mandate to be fully vaccinated or be fired. They will, at the minimum, have to have their second shot of Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccine, or the single shot of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, administered by Oct. 4 to comply in time.

Currently, the mandate will only apply to health department workers and, according to Haslam, possibly corrections staff inside the Pacific County Jail.

The recently imposed mandate by President Joe Biden requiring all companies and agencies with over 100 employees to require vaccinations or weekly testing will likely add to further calls for an exemption resolution.

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