Under emergency rules announced by Gov. David Ige five weeks ago, state and county employees are required to show proof that they’re vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing. This vetting is proving justifiable, given the sharp rise in infections and hospitalizations touched off by the highly contagious delta variant.
According to recent tallies, about 85% of Honolulu County’s 10,000 employees are vaccinated, and the city is reviewing some 890 requests for exemption due to medical and religious reasons. Cpl. Mark Kutsy, a veteran of the Honolulu Police Department, is included in a third grouping: he’s among about 49 employees subject to unpaid leave and possible termination for failing to respond or comply with county policy. Honolulu is the only county that doesn’t allow testing in lieu of vaccination for nonexempt cases.
Kutsy, who declined the vaccine because of personal judgment and his good-health track record, said he’s willing to submit to weekly testing — alongside those who secure the already specified exemptions. Ideally, that would be an acceptable option. However, due to realistic limits on COVID-19 testing capacity here and other functional challenges, some elements of county policy must fall short of ideal.
While Hawaii recently doubled its overall testing capacity system to handle up to 10,000 tests a day, demand for the gold-standard polymerase chain reaction test is outstripping supply, in part, because of employer-required testing in both public- and private-sector settings. Honolulu Hale is rightly imposing strict exemption rules as they help ensure access to testing for people who are symptomatic — and better shield county workers, along with the public they serve, from community spread.
An expected upshot of the emergency rules is even longer lines for testing. It’s encouraging that in Honolulu County’s latest plan for spending federal pandemic relief funds, $35 million is allocated for COVID-19 testing and vaccine incentives. At both county and state levels, many more free testing options are needed to support the effort to gauge the public health threat.
Kutsy, who was hoping to retire next year after 25 years with HPD, has several working days to reply to a termination notice. He has some hard choices to make. Mayor Rick Blangiardi and other county leaders, meanwhile, should make the hard decision to hold the line.
While Kutsy should be credited for his service and his candor, making an exception to the policy opens the door to a potential flood of requests. It would be a precedent for many other employees to simply claim personal objection or a healthy history to decline vaccination — a personal stand that’s not in the best interest of public health in a pandemic.
Some opposed to Hawaii’s vaccine rules and various other COVID-19 restrictions have argued that they unnecessarily fuel distrust of government and stifle the exercise of civil liberties. In a persuasive opinion counterpoint that recently appeared in The New York Times, the ACLU disagreed.
The nonprofit, which routinely defends civil liberties even when they’re unpopular, noted that “by inoculating people from the disease’s worst effects, the vaccines offer the promise of restoring to all of us our most basic liberties, eventually allowing us to return safely to life … in schools and at houses of worship and political meetings, not to mention at restaurants, bars, and gatherings with family and friends.”
Further, while “we all have the fundamental right to bodily integrity and to make our own health care decisions,” these rights are not absolute; “they do not include the right to inflict harm on others.” To avoid that unwanted end, strenuous public health measures — including COVID-19 vaccination and long-standing directives such as mask-wearing and physical distancing — are fully necessary at this time.