Last week, Vashon Fire Chief Charles Krimmert announced that he had received a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination at Vashon Pharmacy on Tuesday, Sept. 21.
His decision to get the shot, which was announced in a Sept. 25 letter to fire commissioners and district staff and volunteers, came after a prolonged and public drama over the chief’s vaccination status, which played out in public meetings, on social media, and a raft of letters to both the fire district and the local newspaper.
Six weeks ago, Krimmert told The Beachcomber that he had not been vaccinated for COVID-19, and objected to Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate for all state healthcare workers to become so by Oct. 19.
As a proposed workaround to the mandate, Krimmert had asked Vashon Island Fire and Rescue’s (VIFR) board of commissioners to release him from his duty to maintain his status as an EMT so that he could 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 told The Beachcomber.
News of the chief’s stance spread beyond Vashon, as the story was picked up in media outlets including The Seattle Times, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, and KOMO-TV News.
At an Aug. 26 commissioners’ meeting, Krimmert defended his administration, saying he was a strong leader and that his opposition to Inslee’s mandate was an example of that leadership.
“I am not an anti-vaxxer,” Krimmert said in the meeting. “However, I do take exception to the governor making medical decisions for me. And standing up and being heard on that matter is leadership.”
The commissioners voted on Sept. 1 to deny Krimmert’s request to change his job description, effectively closing the door to his continued employment in the district unless he became vaccinated. Since that time, the commissioners have also made it clear that no other unvaccinated VIFR employees will respond to calls after Oct. 19, the governor’s deadline for vaccination.
So what led to the chief’s decision to get the shot after all?
In a letter sent last week to fire district commissioners and district employees, and in a similarly-worded op-ed published in this week’s Beachcomber (see page 6) Krimmert explained that ultimately, he made the choice in order to stay in a job he loved.
“I did not want to leave the district in the lurch after putting five years of blood, sweat and tears into the job,” he said. “We have worked hard to bring the district back from the brink of bankruptcy and improve it and grow it. We worked together to meet this historic pandemic challenge and it’s not a good time to change leadership while we still face the Delta spike and who knows what is yet to come.”
He also said that the economics of the choice also factored into his calculation.
“There’s no denying that I had no plans in place to suddenly have my salary and pension taken from me, and that contributed to my dilemma,” he said.
Krimmert also apologized for his missteps in public communications about the matter, saying he had felt “trapped and angry,” after Inslee’s mandate had removed his “personal and private choice about my health care.”
“I made some regrettable remarks to The Beachcomber and at a commissioner’s meeting,” he said. “Looking back, I wish I had done a better job of explaining myself.”
Krimmert, who has been eligible to receive a COVID vaccination as a high-risk health care worker since 2020, also discussed his prolonged vaccine hesitancy in an interview with The Beachcomber, following his announcement that he had gotten the shot.
He said he had received other vaccinations but had been concerned about COVID vaccines.
“I was focused on the nature of [them]; [they] came on the market very fast,” he said. “I try to keep an eye on my health and what I ingest, so I was continuing to do my homework.”
When asked if he had shared his concerns about the vaccines with members of Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps — a group who has repeatedly urged islanders to become vaccinated, and whose work Krimmert has overseen in his capacity of the incident commander to Vashon’s pandemic response — Krimmert said that members of the group had approached him in recent weeks.
”When all this came to light, many of them wanted to be supportive and helpful, [asking] if there was any information I needed from them, but I’d long been engaged in looking at the three vaccines and which I’d use or not use, so I appreciated the support in helping me, but it’s not like I had not been engaged on the subject,” he said.
In the interview, Krimmert also acknowledged that he understood that his very public struggle with the mandate and vaccination had resulted in a loss of confidence in the district by some islanders, but said his statements and actions in recent weeks should not reflect on the entire department, made up of more than 60 staff members, including volunteer and career firefighters.
“What I would say would be [that] this was a decision for me, about me, and it should not be imposed on the 60-something other people who have diligently continued to serve,” he said.
He also said he would learn from the mistakes he made in the past six weeks.
“… When we have an event like this, it’s very difficult to recuperate from,” he said. “Trust is earned … So I’m going to have to work very diligently. So my statement to the community is to keep an eye on me, if you like, but don’t doubt the district and the men and women who serve this island and do so with great dedication.”
Krimmert also said that the district’s policies on wearing personal protective equipment on calls had kept islanders safe throughout the pandemic and would continue to be in place for all in the district, including himself. He said he had followed these policies and would continue to do so.
“There is no special dispensation for me, whatever safety protocols we have, I should follow, and if I forget, we’re a team, we should all keep an eye on each other and make sure,” he said, adding that he had recently responded to a call to a car accident, and walked out of his truck without his mask, and had to return to the truck to get it.
Current PPE guidelines from King County Emergency Medical Services call for first responders performing patient care to don a surgical mask, eye protection and gloves, with more stringent PPE called for in cases with known or high suspicion of active COVID infection.
Andy Johnson, who is chair of the VIFR commissioners, called Krimmert’s decision to get vaccinated “a good outcome, regardless of the path he took to get there,” adding that the question of Krimmert’s continued employment in the district had now been remedied by his compliance with the mandate.
When asked if individual commissioners had differences of opinion regarding the chief’s future in the district, Johnson said that no vote had been taken in open session regarding firing the chief.
“The board is satisfied,” he said.
Johnson also briefly discussed Krimmert’s public admission of anger issues during the past six weeks and also in another recent incident.
At a Sept. 1 board meeting, commissioners passed two motions, specifying repercussions for VIFR assistant chief Bob Larson and Krimmert, for unspecified misconduct on July 20 that had been discussed in closed session prior to the vote.
Krimmert was issued a written reprimand for discourteous treatment of a citizen; Larson was suspended for a week without pay for the same misconduct, as well as “the possession, carrying and use of a clubbing incident on district property.”
“We certainly hope that the reprimand sent a message, and we’ll be in ongoing close contact with [Krimmert] about that,” Johnson said.
Chaplain now says he will take a leave of absence
Last week, The Beachcomber reported that VIFR’s volunteer chaplain, Father Tryphon, refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and had filed for a religious exemption to the mandate.
On Thursday, Sept. 23, as the news of Tryphon’s vaccination stance was going to press, Tryphon stopped by The Beachcomber office and spoke to a reporter, saying he had been told by VIFR that he would be able to continue his work for the district, working remotely and by telephone.
Fire Chief Krimmert, in his recent interview with The Beachcomber, did not confirm Tryphon’s account of the accommodation, saying instead that VIFR’s consideration of Tryphon’s exemption and possible accommodations was still being processed.
Subsequently, in a Facebook post on Sept. 26, Father Tryphon announced a new intention — to take a leave of absence from his post as chaplain.