Mayor, police and fire chiefs talk employee vaccinations

  • ROTH

  • FERREIRA

  • TODD

  • Firefighters set up a pool for the helicopter to fill its bucket for water drops on a 2016 brush fire. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file photo)

  • Hawaii Police Department officers make an arrest in this file photo. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

A decision by the City and County of Honolulu to fire a 24-year police officer for refusing to be vaccinated could have implications on Hawaii Island.

Cpl. Mark Kutsy was served with termination papers on Tuesday. Kutsy reportedly told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser he felt taking the vaccine was a bigger risk than exposure to the novel coronavirus “based on my personal health and judgment.”

ADVERTISING


Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s vaccine mandate for municipal workers requires vaccination or an application for a medical or religious exemption, with no option for weekly COVID testing in lieu of inoculation. That directive is more restrictive than Gov. David Ige’s for state workers or the mandates by the other three county mayors in the state, which all allow for a weekly testing option.

Asked Friday if the adoption of a vaccine mandate similar to Blangiardi’s is an option in light of the current spate of COVID-19 cases, Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth replied, “We’re not taking anything off of the table.”

“At this time, we think it’s probably best to just enforce the governor’s rules as he put them out,” Roth said.

“I definitely think we will lose officers if they go to that model,” Hawaii Police Department Chief Paul Ferreira said, referring to Oahu’s vaccine mandate. “And just to be fully transparent about this, we have lost two officers who resigned over this, just because of the declaration and the testing.”

Ferreira said the officers who opted to turn in their badges are one with almost 10 years of service and another that’s been in the department less than two years.

According to Ferreira, about 71% of department employees have received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, and about 65% are fully vaccinated. He said the numbers are similar among officers and civilian employees.

Ferreira said he’s “not surprised” by the numbers, although he thinks they will improve.

The county’s general population is about 62% fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health, ranking the Big Island behind both Oahu and Kauai but ahead of Maui. But only those ages 12 and older are eligible for vaccination.

Ferreira sent a memo to department personnel last month in which he stated, “I understand that the decision of whether or not to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus is a personal choice; however, based on all of the medical evidence available I highly encourage all of our employees to get vaccinated against this virus.

“… Of concern is the recent surge in cases being reported amongst our personnel, primarily involving individuals that have not been vaccinated who contracted the illness outside of the workplace, but have resulted in exposures within the workplace.”

On Wednesday during the Fire Commission’s monthly meeting, Fire Chief Kazuo Todd said vaccination rates for the Hawaii County Fire Department are “a little over 70%.”

“I continue to advocate to get vaccinated,” Todd told commissioners. “I hate to say it, but it is not a medical issue for most people. It’s become a political ideology issue. And this isn’t necessarily about the rational conversations that we’re having about the logic behind why we should or shouldn’t do it. This has become kind of, like, ‘This is my God-given right, and I will not stand down.’

“I have had more than one personnel actually talking about leaving the department over this. It’s out there.”

Commissioner Gerald Kosaki, a retired battalion chief, mentioned “a firefighter from our department that’s right now in Queen’s (Medical Center on Oahu), fighting for his life, because he was unvaccinated.” Although Kosaki didn’t name the firefighter, he was referring to Keoki Lindsey of Waimea.

“As we know, the majority of the people in the hospital are unvaccinated. I don’t know. You’d think the responders, the majority of people would understand that,” Kosaki lamented.

“You would think so, and I agree with you 100%,” Todd responded. “The kind of rumors that are out there, the misinformation that is out there — and I hate to say it, but if you look for proof, you will find it, regardless of what you believe in. And the way a lot of social media algorithms work, once you start biting into something, it will not tell you anything contrary to your views. It will just take you farther down the rabbit hole.

“… That’s one of the reasons I’m having this conversation with our personnel face-to-face, because no memo that I put out, no mandate that I require is going to change opinions right away.”

Todd said he hopes the numbers will improve to about 90%.

After the meeting, he said he’s “a little bit surprised that our rate isn’t a little bit higher.”

“We’re trying to visit our stations and talk to our personnel about the importance of safeguarding each other, and not so much safeguarding themselves,” he said. “Because the vaccine, while it doesn’t eliminate the odds of you getting it, it does drastically reduce it. And should you get it, the odds of you having a serious complication go down dramatically.”

Roth pegged the rate of vaccinations for county employees at “about 74%.”

“We’re very concerned, especially in light of what’s happening in our hospitals, the amount of people in our (intensive care units), and the fact that we’ve had people waiting in our emergency rooms to get into hospital beds,” he said. “I’ve visited all of our hospitals, and one of the things I’ve seen is that all of the emergency rooms have had people waiting at least a day, at times up to four days, to get into a hospital room. That’s really concerning because we’re starting to tax our emergency rooms.

ADVERTISING


“When somebody has something really bad happen, like a heart attack or a car crash … and they need immediate medical services, that impacts their ability to get them.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.