Law enforcement agencies in the Inland Northwest aren’t requiring COVID-19 vaccines or tracking how many of their officers have received the shot, despite local hospitals being overwhelmed by increased hospitalizations and deaths among unvaccinated people.
Washington state and federal employees are required to get the shot or apply for an exemption, but neither the city of Spokane nor Spokane County have an employee mandate. Law enforcement agencies cite that decision as why they aren’t mandating the shot.
Police unions have expressed fears that vaccine mandates in place in other parts of the state will lead to transfers or resignations among their officers. The city of Seattle mandated vaccines for its employees earlier this summer, which the Seattle Police Officers Guild told Crosscut could lead to a “mass exodus” of officers who refuse.
President Joe Biden announced last week that companies with more than 100 employees would need to mandate their staff be vaccinated or face fines, but it’s unclear whether this applies to municipal governments.
The city of Spokane is seeking clarification from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to determine whether it falls under the new rules, city spokesperson Brian Coddington said.
City employees currently are asked to attest they’ve been vaccinated to the city’s human resources department, he said. The number of city employees who say they’re vaccinated is not available, Coddington said, because they aren’t aggregating the data.
The Spokane Police Department also doesn’t require officers or employees to be vaccinated, but does follow state guidelines on masking and quarantining employees who have contracted the virus or been exposed, said department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys.
Chief Craig Meidl declined to comment on his personal vaccination status, Humphreys said.
Spokane County also doesn’t require its employees to be vaccinated. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he is vehemently opposed to vaccine mandates that he believes turn people away from getting the shot.
“We shouldn’t be mandating,” Knezovich said. “We should be leading.”
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Jay Inslee has been confusing, Knezovich said, causing frustration and lack of trust. He specifically cited the decision by the CDC not to recommend masking indoors, only for that decision to be reversed a few months later after the new, more contagious delta variant spread rapidly across the United States.
Being shamed for vaccination status is a huge turnoff for people, Knezovich said. He believes vaccination status should not be something people are asked to share publicly.
Despite that belief, Knezovich has shared his choice to get vaccinated in hopes of encouraging others to follow suit.
Knezovich said he contracted COVID-19 early this year and did not have severe symptoms. Around the same time, his daughter also contracted the virus and had serious complications, he said, showing him firsthand how dangerous the disease can be. He chose to get the vaccine after doing his own research, mainly drawing from medical studies out of Israel, he said.
More people would choose to get the shot if presented with accurate information on the vaccine by local leaders, rather than being forced through a mandate, he said. Earlier this month, Knezovich sat down with Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez to discuss the pandemic and vaccines in a YouTube video posted by Spokane Talks. He plans to continue outreach in the coming weeks, he added.
The Liberty Lake Police Department is falling in line with the city and also not requiring officers to be vaccinated, Chief Damon Simmons said.
Mandates and exemptions
Unlike local agencies, troopers at the Washington State Patrol are mandated to get the vaccine or submit an exemption request.
As of early this week, nearly 400 employees had submitted exemptions; of those, 373 were religious and 22 were medical, said Chris Loftis, communications director for WSP.
According to data released by the state, 47% of WSP’s 2,223 employees were vaccinated as of Sept. 6. State employees are required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, and about 8% of those workers have put in exemption requests.
Once those requests are approved, WSP will begin looking for accommodations, like teleworking, that would allow employees to continue in their role, Loftis said.
If an accommodation cannot be found, employees may be fired, he said. Losing troopers would be difficult for the already understaffed agency, he said.
“We want to be through this, and the vaccine seems to be the quickest path for us,” Loftis said. “We want everyone to be vaccinated. We want to be done with COVID.”
The Department of Corrections, which also falls under the state mandate, has similar vaccination levels to WSP.
At Airway Heights Correctional Facility, 46% of employees were vaccinated as of early this month. Of the nearly 700 employees at the facility, 47 have filed for an exemption, 36 of those were religious and 11 were medical.
DOC has administered vaccines to 39% of their staff; however that number doesn’t include staff who may have been vaccinated elsewhere.
Few COVID protocols in North Idaho
Unlike in Washington, there are no mask or vaccine mandates across the state line in North Idaho, and neither the Coeur d’Alene nor Post Falls police departments are requiring employees to be vaccinated.
The City of Post Falls is “strongly encouraging” employees to get the shot by offering a $50 incentive into their health reimbursement account if they provide proof of vaccination, said Teresa Benner, city human resources director.
“We prefer to take the carrot versus the stick approach on this one,” Benner said. “It has been really well received by all of our employees.”
So far, seven of the 47 Post Falls Police Officers have provided proof of vaccination; however, Benner believes the number of officers who are vaccinated is higher, with some officers keeping that information private.
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
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