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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: We shouldn’t need mandates, but we do — vaccines are how we put out this fire

FILE - In this Sunday, March 21, 2021, file photo, is a vial of of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sikh temple, on the day the first Vaisakhi Vaccine Clinic is launched, in Luton, England. Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize the emergency use of an antibody treatment to prevent COVID-19. The company said Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, that the treatment would be the first long-acting antibody combination to receive an emergency use authorization for COVID-19 prevention.  (Alberto Pezzali)
FILE - In this Sunday, March 21, 2021, file photo, is a vial of of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Sikh temple, on the day the first Vaisakhi Vaccine Clinic is launched, in Luton, England. Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize the emergency use of an antibody treatment to prevent COVID-19. The company said Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, that the treatment would be the first long-acting antibody combination to receive an emergency use authorization for COVID-19 prevention. (Alberto Pezzali)

Maybe public safety just isn’t their thing.

At last count, some 40 Spokane firefighters risk losing their jobs by Oct. 18 because they have sought exemptions from the state vaccination requirement – a state of affairs their union chief has described as “nefarious” and “evil.”

I hate to see anyone lose their jobs, but I hate it more – much, much more – to see supposed public servants doing backflips to avoid taking responsibility for public well-being, during a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 since the shots became available.

The firefighters who want exemptions from the governor’s vaccine mandate have asked to be accommodated, and the city says it can’t do so. On a staff of 300, 13% want accommodations. The city simply doesn’t have enough firefighters to rearrange the entire department in order to keep them in positions where they’ll have little enough contact with the public to make it safe. It would be costly and could limit the department’s ability to respond.

So the city has said it has no legal wiggle room within the governor’s mandate. Though it is offering several options for firefighters – including applying for other city jobs or considering scenarios more like a layoff, with potential return to work eventually – it’s taking a hard line.

Harsh? Yes.

Necessary? Completely.

If only the city could extend this hard line to the cops. But the stance on the firefighters has more to do with the governor’s mandate than the city’s stiff spine. Because firefighters are licensed as EMTs or paramedics, they fall under the state mandate, whereas city police do not.

The job of a firefighter is important, and it won’t be great in the short term if we lose some. It is also – with no disrespect to those who do it – an incredibly well-paying job by Spokane standards, with excellent benefits, a lot of downtime and a union that has swung a bigger bat at City Hall than any elected official.

All of that should come with the assumption that the people who do the job adopt the minimum level of responsibility toward the public. Back when the vaccines first arrived and hopes for herd immunity were high, the notion of vaccine mandates seemed draconian – despite the fact that we have long required vaccinations to go to school, join the military, travel to certain countries and work in certain jobs, all without resorting to Holocaust comparisons.

That was then. The delta surge, in combination with stubborn, politicized vaccine refusal, has brought us pandemic Groundhog Day. Though there are positive signs on the horizon, case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths all have been at or near pandemic levels, the number of young people coming down with COVID is growing, and the same sad stories of death and hospitalizations play out every single day.

And this is happening almost entirely among the unvaccinated.

Gov. Jay Inslee has required vaccination for all state and health care workers, who must be fully vaxxed by Oct. 18. About 9% of state employees, or almost 6,000, have sought exemptions or accommodations – mostly on religious grounds. No major religion has announced an opposition to the vaccines, and it’s hard not to suspect that the religion in question, at least for some, is the Church of You Can’t Tell Me What to Do.

I belong to this church myself, though not the anti-vaxxer denomination, and one thing I know about it is it’s not really a religion.

Still, people with religious exemptions can meet the mandate if their employer can find them safe accommodations. Others might have to take a layoff to be rehired later, or some similar arrangement in which their departure might not be permanent. If large numbers wind up leaving their jobs, the potential consequences for staffing could be significant.

What’s more likely, though, is that the numbers seeking exemptions will come way down. The odds are high that, by the Oct. 18 deadline, fewer than 40 firefighters wind up losing their jobs. The number already dropped by 13 from the initial exemption requests, and could drop further.

That would be the ideal outcome for everyone, and that’s what’s happening in other organizations where mandates have been implemented. By the time the deadline arrives, a lot of people roll up their sleeves.

Large health care systems in California and New York had success pushing their rates above 90% after mandates were issued. Similarly high rates resulted in Texas health care systems, with the vast majority of workers deciding to get the shots rather than lose their jobs.

Mandates are credited with getting 96% of teachers in New York vaccinated. With getting more than 99% of United Airlines workers vaccinated. With pushing Tyson Foods from a rate of less than 50% to more than 90%.

We should never have needed the mandates, frankly, but the evidence is strong that they work.

The house is on fire. This is how we put it out.

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