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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Let unvaxxed Spokane firefighters live with the consequence of their choice

Spokane Fire Department Division Chief and Fire Marshal Lance Dahl looks at the remains of the home at Lidgerwood and LaCrosse in North Spokane Monday, May 9, 2022. The building is likely a total loss. Two people escaped on their own and two were pulled out by firefighters. The origin is under investigation.  (Jessse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane Fire Department Division Chief and Fire Marshal Lance Dahl looks at the remains of the home at Lidgerwood and LaCrosse in North Spokane Monday, May 9, 2022. The building is likely a total loss. Two people escaped on their own and two were pulled out by firefighters. The origin is under investigation. (Jessse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

As the City Council looks at soaring overtime costs in the fire department, some council members want to rehire firefighters who chose to leave their extraordinarily well-paid jobs rather than get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Councilman Jonathan Bingle called it “the right thing” to do.

Which simply drips with irony. When it comes to matters of personal responsibility, respect for others and the coronavirus, Bingle – who paraded around maskless at City Hall – wouldn’t recognize the right thing if it jabbed him in the arm.

But it’s not too late for these former firefighters to do the actual right thing and to get vaccinated. Those shots are still available for the 23 members of the Spokane Fire Department who refused them. They are safe, effective and they help everyone – vaccinated firefighters and the public they serve – avoid the worst consequences of a disease that has not gone away.

It’s probably too late, though, for them to display a sense of public service and responsibility. In sacrificing their jobs on the altar of vaccine refusal, they showed something crucial about their lack of dedication to public safety that we should not forget.

It’s every bit as big a reason not to hire them back as their vaccination status.

The staffing shortfall at the fire department is serious and the overtime crisis is real. There are about 50 openings in the SFD, and overtime costs, which are frequently a problem in both the fire and police departments, are expected to reach $7 million.

Bingle, along with council members Michael Cathcart and Lori Kinnear, voted recently to urge the mayor to develop a plan to “immediately rehire” all the firefighters who refused vaccination, which put them in violation of a state vaccine mandate. The vote failed to muster a majority.

But vaccine departures represent a very small part of this problem, which arose chiefly around pandemic-related hiring difficulties. Twenty-three members of the department refused to get the jabs. Twelve were given workplace accommodations and kept their jobs. Three retired. Two resigned. Four were laid off.

Hiring the six who quit or were laid off would do little to address the problem, while reversing a measure that was, and remains, a sound step for public safety.

Firefighters have an important job, and it’s reflected in their ample pay – scores of them earn six figures and for years now, the best-paid members of the fire department have been the best-paid city employees. The Inlander took a recent look at city salaries and found the highest-paid 60 employees came from fire, police and dispatch – the mayor was 151st.

A deep irony reflected in that reporting was the fact that the single highest-paid employee in the city – salary plus a ton of extras such as unused leave – was a vaccine refuser, Battalion Chief David Heizer.

Heizer earned almost $300,000 in 2021, even though he quit in October. That’s more than the mayor, fire chief or police chief.

In his resignation letter, he claimed that unvaccinated people represented no greater risk to the public than vaccinated people.

This is wrong, and it’s wrong in a way that reflects poorly on his ability to serve the public, then or now. A department whose members were absolutely crucial in this city’s COVID-19 response, and our vaccination efforts, should not welcome him back.

As the country marks a million lives lost to COVID-19, it is very hard to feel much forgiveness toward those who made a cause out of refusing a life-saving vaccine, and particularly those who confidently espoused utter nonsense as they did so. They were truly the pandemic’s handservants, keeping the viral spread burning when they might have helped douse it instead.

And, while case counts, hospitalizations and deaths have all fallen to levels that have made it possible to return to most normal activities, the virus has not vanished, nor has the potential for outbreaks and mutations. Three hundred- fifty cases have been reported by the county health district this week (which is almost certainly a large undercount, given how many people with mild cases are testing at home) and serious cases have not gone away.

Thirteen people have died of the virus in Spokane County since March. One hundred- two people were hospitalized in that span. Experts are eyeing potential new surges later in the year.

In this reality, expecting a tiny bit of public-mindedness and personal responsibility from those who provide medical treatment to the public is little to ask.

Unvaccinated people are more likely to get and transmit the virus, and they help create a breeding ground for viral mutations. Such mutations are harder for the vaccinated to stave off, elevating the number of breakthrough cases.

More than two years after the virus made its first appearance in the United States, at an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, the incredible toll exacted by politicized vaccine refusal remains stunning.

The social strength of anti-vaxxer nonsense and COVID denial, boosted by ugly, cynical politics, was a national disgrace. We should at least expect more from public servants.

The city pays firefighters very well, because they do a very important job. Expecting them to show respect and responsibility, to say nothing of an understanding of simple facts about vaccines, is not too much to ask.

It was – and is – the right thing to do.

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