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Assembly tables attempt to oppose ‘vaccine segregation’

Sabine Poux/KDLL

A Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting turned into a debate about the coronavirus last night, when a resolution condemning vaccine mandates generated hours of conversation about unproven COVID-19 treatments and took the meeting right up to its 11:30 p.m. automatic end time.

Nearly 20 commenters took to the podium to talk about their own experiences with COVID-19 and ivermectin — a drug that’s most commonly used in the U.S. as a dewormer for animals and is sometimes used as an anti-parasitic drug in humans.

"People are screaming at you that there is a treatment," said April Orth, of Kenai. "It is an effective treatment and it should be available to everyone.”

Ivermectin has become popular among anti-vaccine circles, in particular, as more people claim it could be a treatment for COVID-19. Federal agencies said there is not enough evidence to show that’s the case and are cautioning against using it as a COVID cure while clinical trials are underway.

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce stoked the conversation about ivermectin at the last assembly meeting and again on local talk radio, alleging Central Peninsula Hospital isn’t doing everything in its power to help coronavirus-infected patients because it’s not using alternative treatments.

Orth said at the meeting she had just finished recovering from COVID-19 and self-medicated with ivermectin. Ray Southwell, of Niksiki, said he was delighted when the mayor mentioned the drug at the last meeting.

"We need encouragement from you," he said. "I was encouraged a couple weeks ago when the mayor mentioned ivermectin. I exploded. I contacted him. I wanted to talk to him, I encouraged him because we need to have this dialogue.”

Several health care workers, including Matthew Puckett, of Homer, warned there isn’t enough evidence to prove ivermectin is safe for COVID patients.

“As much as people would say there are other doctors saying this is working in their clinics, in their practice, there is not a large enough body of evidence to establish policies," he said.

COVID-19 came up during nearly every opportunity for public comment at Tuesday's meeting.

But most of the conversation was in response to a resolution introduced by Pierce against “vaccine segregation” from the government.

Pierce’s resolution said the assembly has previously encouraged people to get vaccinated against coronavirus. But, it said, the assembly opposes any mandates from the government that would exclude unvaccinated people in any case.

Some private businesses have required proof of vaccination as a condition for entry into buildings or events. Vaccines are also now required for students of the University of Alaska living in on-campus dorms, and the Biden Administration is considering requiring vaccines for employees of federally funded nursing homes. The state of Alaska and local governments have not taken a step toward any mask mandates.

As a second-class borough, the Kenai Peninsula Borough does not have policing or health powers.

But Richard Derkevorkian, one of the assembly members who co-sponsored the resolution, said it was important for the borough to take a stand.

"This is a simple decision for me," he said. "You’re either on Team America, the land of the free, and you can join me on the record opposing government mandates, or you can align with the tyrants and governments like Australia.”

Over 20 comments sent to the assembly in advance of the meeting condemned the resolution. Few were in favor.

But the reverse was true for the commenters that showed up at Tuesday’s meeting. Most said they supported it, including Taylor Jackson, of Soldotna, who said he sees mandates as a moral wrong.

“How is it any different from what Nazis did by taking a group of people, segregating them, and then making everybody else think they’re dangerous? Explain the difference to me, please," he said.

Margaret Gilman, of Kenai, said she worried the resolution was too negative coming from public officials.

“There are those that are not able to be vaccinated because of their health concerns," she said. "But the vaccine hesitant may be swayed by your public actions.”

Some assembly members were frustrated by the resolution’s lack of teeth. In a moment of irony, the legal department asked the assembly to change some of its wording because cities were concerned they were being required to mandate anti-mandate policies.

Assembly President Brent Hibbert said he agreed with the notion of the resolution. But he said it was political and toothless.

"We do three things: We fund schools, we take care of solid waste and we do end-to-end roads," Hibbert said. "We can’t do this. This resolution has no teeth. It’s just words on a piece of paper that cause division.”

When it became clear the resolution did not have the votes it needed to pass, assembly member and resolution sponsor Jesse Bjorkman successfully moved to table it. That means it can come up again at a future assembly meeting.

Pierce said he was grateful for the hours of debate and doubled down on his support for other treatments. The meeting adjourned before all business was completed — which assembly member Willy Dunne said has only happened a handful of times in his tenure on the assembly, mostly during debates about commercial marijuana regulations.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the federal government has not yet instituted a vaccine mandate for employees of federally funded nursing homes. That policy is still in the works.

This article has also been corrected to reflect that Matthew Puckett is a health care worker, not a physician. We regret the error.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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