Vaccination deadline extended for Honolulu first responders as shortages loom

On Friday, attorneys who said they represent more than 1,200 first responders filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, asking that the city's mandate be voided


Peter Boylan
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — Facing the prospect of a sudden shortage of police, firefighters, paramedics and other county workers who have not been inoculated against, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi extended by one week the deadline for employees to comply with Honolulu's vaccine mandate to Monday.

Blangiardi continues to call city leaders and union officials, answering questions and urging employees to accept the vaccine while planning for a scenario where unvaccinated workers may be not be available to perform their duties.

"Mayor Blangiardi stands behind the decision to protect city employees, their families and our communities, while also reducing the number of positive COVID-19 cases currently on the verge of overwhelming our medical providers, " said Tim Sakahara, the mayor's communications director, in a statement provided to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "In addition, we have heard from numerous employees who are grateful for the program. We thank our city employees who are fully vaccinated for doing their part to fight the pandemic."

The city will not have a tally of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees until after Monday, Sakahara said.

State and county officials are urging all employees to get vaccinated to reduce the risk of further spread of COVID-19 and ease the pressure on hospitals. Of the 321 people hospitalized for COVID-19 statewide as of Monday, only 26 were vaccinated.

The mandate originally required all county employees to be vaccinated by Monday, Aug. 16, unless they were granted a medical or religious exemption. If that request is denied, the employee "will be given up to five calendar days to initiate the COVID-19 vaccination process or be placed on leave without pay until their employment status is determined, " according to the city's policy. Unvaccinated employees who don't submit an exemption request by Monday will be placed on leave without pay and possibly terminated.

Acting Honolulu Police Chief Rade K. Vanic, acting Honolulu Fire Chief Lionel E. Camara Jr., Honolulu Emergency Services Department Director Dr. James Ireland and acting EMS Chief Christopher Sloman did not respond to questions about the mandate, how their supervisors are handling it, whether they are asking all of their employees to comply with the mayor's mandate or what impact a sudden loss of personnel would have on public safety.

Vanic, who is vaccinated, has said that he encourages all officers and civilian personnel to get vaccinated as they are responsible for enforcing the state's emergency orders, a duty that places them in direct contact with people possibly infected with COVID-19.

At the July 7 Honolulu Police Commission meeting, HPD Maj. Thomas "Sonny " Santos told commissioners that approximately 75 % of HPD's more than 2, 200 sworn officers and civilian employees have been vaccinated. The department has had a difficult time getting an accurate number because employees may have gone to their primary care physician for the vaccination, he told commissioners.

"Commissioner (Michael ) Broderick then asked what the Department's position was concerning employee's who have declined vaccination. Acting Assistant Chief Santos said, approximately 25 percent of employees have not been vaccinated, and that is their personal choice, " according to the minutes of the July 7 meeting.

About 75 % of the roughly 1,100 members of the Honolulu Fire Department are also currently vaccinated, according to the Hawaii Firefighters Association, Local 1463.

Bobby Lee, HFFA president, said the union's top priority is ensuring members' safety and that vaccinations are a critical part of protecting them and their families.

"We strongly support our members being vaccinated. We consider that the safest means to protect themselves, but we also respect their personal choice. If they don't want to vaccinate, we recognize their personal choice, and they understand that comes with weekly tests, " Lee told the Star-Advertiser. "We recognize everyone's opinion, and we want our guys as safe as possible."

Malcolm Lutu, president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, said SHOPO will continue to work with the Hawaii Government Employees Association, United Public Workers, HFFA, University of Hawaii Professional Assembly and Hawaii State Teachers Association to engage state and county officials and find a middle ground for their members.

"We strongly urge our members to get vaccinated, and we continue to use (personal protective equipment ) and be aware of our contacts with the public. Sometimes we are forced to go hands-on but (the virus is ) a constant reminder to sanitize and be as safe as we can when dealing with the public, " Lutu told the Star-Advertiser.

On Friday, attorneys who said they represent more than 1,200 first responders filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, asking that the city's mandate be voided.

"County workers want reasonable testing mandates, not vaccine mandates, " said attorneys Michael J. Green, Shawn A. Luiz and Kristin Coccaro in a statement. "This lawsuit is not about being anti-vaccine. ... This is about a personal, autonomous healthcare decision, and everyone should make their own choice, whether they want to take the vaccine or not."

A hearing is set for Sept. 8 before U.S. District Judge Derrick K. Watson.

"We're not against the vaccine, we're against the mandate. We just don't want them (state and county government ) to force people, " Green said. "There are personal rights that people are espousing. They don't want this medicine put in their bodies before the FDA ( U.S. Food and Drug Administration ) approves it."

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(c)2021 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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