UPDATE Aug. 19:
The board of Vashon Island Fire and Rescue will hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20, on Zoom. A notice on the district’s website, vifr.org, lists the meeting’s agenda and Zoom link. The agenda states that except for a welcome and adjournment, the meeting will be held in executive session (meaning it will not be open to the public) and is expected to last 30 minutes. It further states the meeting will be held to evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment or to review the performance of a public employee. It is unknown if this meeting relates to the performance of Chief Krimmert.
According to Rebecca Pollack, district secretary and finance manager, any decisions, if made, will be made in an open session following the closed executive session.
The agenda also states that the next board meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 26.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate for most state employees and health care workers to be vaccinated will soon have repercussions for some local agencies, most notably Vashon Island Fire District.
The governor unveiled his mandate last week, as Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine also announced similar mandates for city and county employees.
State employees who fall under Inslee’s mandate, as well as health care workers in both private and public settings, long-term care facilities, and dental clinics, must receive their final dose of vaccination no later than Oct. 4, in order to comply with the proclamation by Oct. 18. Firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) are also subject to the mandate and vaccination deadline, as are employees of Washington State Ferries.
Those who do not comply will be subject to non-disciplinary dismissal from their jobs for failing to meet the qualifications of the jobs. Only those who cite documented medical reasons or strongly held religious beliefs that prevent vaccination are exempt from the mandate.
Chief Krimmert gives commissioners a choice
Last week, Vashon Fire Chief Charles Krimmert told The Beachcomber that he is unvaccinated and does not plan to be vaccinated in response to the mandate. Instead, he said he will ask VIFR’s elected Board of Commissioners to release him from his duty to maintain his status as an EMT so that he can continue to serve as the district’s chief.
“If the district wants to keep me, they’ll keep me, if they want to fire me, they’ll fire me,” he said.
Krimmert’s statements came after The Beachcomber asked the chief about his vaccination status, following up on a tip from a community member who is not part of the Fire District.
In discussing the issue, Krimmert said his private health information should not be a subject for public discussion and that he did not feel obligated to explain the reasons for his decision. When asked directly, he said he did not have a medical or religious reason for refusing the vaccine.
He also said that one other EMT at VIFR was currently unvaccinated, but that person was willing to be vaccinated.
Andy Johnson, who is currently chair of VIFR’s board of commissioners, said that he had no comment because the commissioners had not yet met to discuss the situation.
The question of whether Krimmert can continue to fight fires in any capacity if he remains unvaccinated adds complexity to the commissioners’ upcoming deliberations on the matter.
Local firefighters, as well as EMTs, fall under the governor’s mandate, said Tara Lee, executive director of communications for the governor’s office.
Lee provided a fact sheet on the proclamation to The Beachcomber, detailing the requirement.
In part, it reads, “The proclamation requires all Health Care Providers to get vaccinated, and Health Care Providers includes all ‘Individuals with credentials listed in the Healthcare Professional Credentialing Requirements list.’ That list includes EMTs. If there are firefighters who do not hold credentials on that list but provide health care services in a professional capacity, they are also included in the definition of Health Care Provider and subject to the proclamation.”
Lee also explained that all agencies that operate “Health Care Settings” — a designation that includes mobile clinics or other vehicles where health care is delivered, such as the kinds operated by VIFR — must enforce compliance with the vaccination requirement.
Krimmert is one of Vashon’s most visible and highly paid public servants, with an annual base salary of $162,750.
Notably, as VIFR’s chief, Krimmert has served as Incident Commander of Vashon’s response to the pandemic. In that capacity, he has overseen the efforts of the island’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), including the standing up of the island’s COVID vaccination and testing sites. The EOC and MRC have repeatedly urged all eligible islanders to become vaccinated, citing the efficacy and safety of the vaccines and the public health benefits of vaccination.
Currently, 83% of islanders 12 and older are fully vaccinated against the virus, and 93% have received one dose of the vaccine.
Mandate also impacts local healthcare, long-term care providers
Kerry Barnes, who is the health care administrator at Vashon’s Sea Mar clinic, said that most but not all of the clinic’s workers are currently vaccinated. However, she added that all those who are currently unvaccinated have now agreed to get the shots in time to meet the mandate’s deadline.
Wendy Kleppe, executive director of Vashon Community Care, also said that VCC’s staff was mostly but not 100% vaccinated; she declined to give a number of unvaccinated workers.
“We’re working really hard to educate our staff on the benefits of staff and residents being fully vaccinated,” Kleppe said, adding that VCC has strong protocols in place including routine testing and PPE requirements for all staff members.
She also said she expected that the union representing VCC’s workers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), would play a role in discussions with workers regarding vaccine mandates.
Kleppe expressed deep gratitude to islanders who had supported VCC throughout the pandemic and said that Vashon’s MRC had played an especially important role in supporting her organization. Vashon’s overall high vaccination rates, she said, had protected VCC staff and residents, and VCC had, in turn, worked ceaselessly to keep staff and residents safe as well.
“We know the vaccine has been a critical factor in keeping our community healthy,” she said. “So taking the next step and making vaccinations a condition of employment just makes sense.”
The vaccination campaign for the island, she said, began at VCC.
“We were the first ones on the island putting shots in arms,” she said.
Vashon Natural Medicine will not be impacted by the vaccination mandate, said Dr. Kelly Wright, who is the founder of the clinic.
“Our entire staff is vaccinated, and has been since the moment the COVID vaccine was available,” she said. “We are all exceedingly thankful that the COVID vaccine exists, and believe it is imperative for all health care workers to be vaccinated. Everyone who can, should be vaccinated for themselves and the safety of others.”
Vaccination policies at other local businesses
Other employers on Vashon are also dealing with the issue of staff vaccinations, even though their businesses are not included in the governor’s mandate.
Vashon Center for the Arts, which employs more than a dozen staff members as well as hires numerous local artists and educators on a contract basis, last week announced that all VCA employees, board members and volunteers who work in VCA buildings must be vaccinated by Sept. 6 or provide documentation for an exception on medical or religious grounds. Those who receive those exemptions will need to present a negative COVID test on a weekly basis to the arts center.
Several members of VCA’s staff are affected by the decision.
Allison Halstead Reid, VCA’s executive director, said that the potential departure of these staff members would be difficult for VCA’s entire, close-knit TEAM. She said that the affected employees had been diligent about following safety protocols in their work, including masking.
“There is no ‘win’ in this situation,” Halstead Reid said. “The loss to VCA will be felt deeply if we have to scramble to fill their roles, not to mention the loss for them in not having wages.”
Halstead Reid explained that calculations for performance venues were rapidly evolving throughout the county and in Seattle. Some major performance venues in Seattle, including Seattle Theatre Group, have recently announced policies that audience members must show proof of vaccination in order to attend performances.
According to Halstead Reid, two upcoming major music acts, booked to perform at VCA later this year, have specified in their contracts that all attendees must be vaccinated as a condition for performing at the arts center — something she anticipated would become more of a norm in the weeks and months to come.
She said she had also been told by VCA’s pro-bono attorney that the arts center, which also offers classes for children who are too young to be vaccinated, could face increased liability without a vaccination mandate for staff members and volunteers.
“The health and safety of our staff and everyone who visits our campus must continue to be our number one priority as an organization that exists to serve our community,” Halstead Reid said.
Another Vashon business, Pacific Research Northwest, also known as Sawbones, now requires new hires to show proof of vaccination, said CEO Norine Martinsen.
However, Martinsen added, Sawbones does not currently plan to institute a requirement for those already hired, as 90% of the staff is already vaccinated and extensive safety protocols are in place at the factory.
Sawbones, after suffering business setbacks that required layoffs a year ago, has rebounded and now employs a full staff of 190 people, she said.
On March 10, 2020, a Sawbones employee who was not a resident of Vashon tested positive for the coronavirus — the island’s first known case of COVID-19. About two weeks ago, a second case cropped up at the factory — this time in a fully vaccinated staff member, who acquired the infection while visiting a friend. That person has been in quarantine since their diagnosis and has only suffered mild symptoms, Martinsen said. No other cases at Sawbones have resulted from exposure to the employee.
Martinsen, too, thanked Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps for their experience and assistance.
On Wednesday, Aug. 18, Gov. Jay Inslee expanded his vaccination mandate to include employees of child care centers, K-12 public schools, private and charter schools and institutions of higher learning. Also, Inslee reinstituted the statewide mask mandate for both vaccinated and unvaccinated persons in indoor settings.