Vax-Spooked Cops Threaten to Plunge Isolated City Into Chaos
When microchip conspiracies and unhinged talk of the so-called mark of the beast meet real-life fears about violent mayhem—and a hospital system on the brink.
As the Delta variant began ravaging Alaska this summer, James Harris, the human-resources manager of the remote city of Bethel, began to panic. Getting to the city of 6,000 requires a plane or a boat—when the rivers aren’t frozen, that is. And when a patient needs critical care for COVID-19 in Bethel, they have to be flown an hour away to Anchorage and pray for a bed.
Alaska currently leads the United States in new coronavirus cases per-capita and is near the top of the pack in hospitalizations and deaths, according to The New York Times. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of the state, the Bethel area is the most populous and far and away the leader in new cases, according to recent data. Meanwhile, area medical officials are issuing dire warnings about the lack of bed space and a crush of unvaccinated COVID patients forcing them to ration care for everyone.
“The city had no choice,” Harris told The Daily Beast. “We had to react.”
To protect the small city and its precious health resources, Bethel officials put in place a mandate two weeks ago that says city employees must get vaccinated by Sept. 27 if they want to keep their jobs. But despite a months-long campaign to sell holdouts on the safe and effective shots, Harris said, a cadre of 15 unvaccinated employees that includes half of the city’s 16-man police department remain fiercely opposed to getting one.
Some of those city employees seem to be leaning toward getting shots, Harris and Bethel city manager Peter Williams told The Daily Beast. But they added that unvaxxed police officers have been far more conspiratorial since the beginning of their long push for vaccinations among city employees. Echoing discredited conspiracies common among anti-vaxxers, they noted, cops have suggested vaccines might be the precursor to the mark of the beast warned about in the Bible—or part of a vast plot to implant microchips in citizens that Joe Biden is somehow in on.
“Joe Biden bought the FDA off. These are things I actually heard,” Harris said.
As the deadline for their new policy approaches, the city leaders said, the remaining unvaxxed officers have only doubled down. “I don’t think they want to hear any more information about why the vaccine is good,” Williams said. “They’ve already staked out their position.”
Opposition to the vaccine from police in Bethel is endemic of opposition the vaccine has seen from police departments across the country. Many officers have refused vaccine mandates, filed unsuccessful lawsuits, and decried the measures as unconstitutional.
But in Bethel, some say police have gone a step further, dangling the possibility of increased violence over remote residents’ heads if the city were to push half of the police force out of the job—even as officials fear more COVID cases could spark a special kind of chaos.
Among other highlights, Police Chief Richard Simmons baldly told KYUK earlier this week that the small city was “one of the most violent communities in the nation” and needed every one of its officers.
Skyler Smith, a Bethel police officer opposed to the vaccine mandate, told The Daily Beast that if the department were to lose half of its staff, the citizens would pay the “ultimate price.”
“Who’s going to respond to that domestic-violence call?” Smith said. “The city council? I doubt it.”
The comments rankled local residents like Diane McEachern, a local college professor in Bethel and resident for over 20 years who told The Daily Beast that members of the police department seemed to be overstating the reality.
While she admitted there are alcohol abuse concerns in the city and disturbances related to that, she pushed back on the idea that her hometown was a crime-ridden hellhole that must placate cops over the public-health concerns of the rest of the community. “We are not the most violent community in the United States,” she said. “It is not some dangerous place like they make it seem.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Chief Simmons said it wasn’t his place to explain some of the reasons his officers were deciding not to get vaccinated, including the conspiracy theories. “Every person is entitled to live their life in the way they need to,” he said. “Ultimately, the policy is what it is, and we’ll keep the policy the way it is, and I’ll enforce the policy.”
Simmons also pushed back on the idea that he was using “scare tactics” to influence the debate over the policy, but instead said he was talking about the reality of what his officers face. “And the reality is that it is rough out here,” he said.
According to 2019 crime stats compiled by the FBI, there were 130 violent crimes in Bethel that year for a population of about 6,500. Simmons said that although the population is tiny, the relative crime rate is high.
Nonetheless, residents and city leaders who spoke to The Daily Beast said they’re prepared to make do with a dwindled force if it means stopping unvaxxed officers from interacting with the public and potentially spreading COVID in a region that can’t afford it.
“We’ve been short police officers before,” Williams, the city manager, told The Daily Beast.
Williams and Harris said that most of the officers fighting the mandate don’t live in Bethel. Two fly-in from more populous parts of the state two weeks at time, while four officers fly in every two weeks from Georgia. Harris said they were lured to make the biweekly trek by the high salaries the city pays.
Despite the fact that the majority of the eight officers in opposition don’t have much of a personal stake in safeguarding the community, Harris, a former police officer himself, said, he is still disappointed by the “battle of wills” the situation has come to.
“Here we have police officers who the general public looks at to provide and protect their welfare and safety, and yet they don’t even want to abide by welfare and safety laws themselves.”
Smith, the Bethel Police officer, is among the unvaxxed officers who lives outside of the city, commuting from his home in Wasilla, near Anchorage. He told The Daily Beast he’s never considered getting a COVID-19 vaccine—although he maintains he is not “anti vaccine,” just “anti this vaccine.”
Like other Bethel officers opposed to the mandate, Smith said he doesn’t care if others take the vaccine, but feels like it’s his duty as a law-enforcement officer to stand up to “unconstitutional” attempts to have it mandated.
He argued that vaccine mandates violate fundamental rights for Americans enshrined in the 14th Amendment. When asked about the nationwide trend of officers opposing vaccine mandates, he said it was only natural that law-enforcement members who study the constitution and the law before being sworn in would be “holding the line” to make sure rights aren’t violated.
“We have to be consistent in enforcing the constitution and our laws across the board,” he said. “That’s what we were hired to do.”
The problem is that constitutional challenges filed in courts across the country in recent months have failed. Judges have ruled, repeatedly, that past Supreme Court decisions grant authority to state and local leaders to issue vaccine mandates.
But it isn’t these arguments that have won Smith the only city-approved exemption from getting the shot and keeping his job after Sept. 27. Rather, he told The Daily Beast, it is his Christian faith and his opposition to the use of fetal cells in the early development stages of some COVID vaccines.
Two fetal cell lines—one from an aborted fetus in the early 1970s and one from 1985—were used to produce five COVID-19 vaccines, but only one of them, the Johnson & Johnson shot, is available in the United States. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, meanwhile, did not require the use of fetal cells during the production process. Earlier this summer, Pope Francis also endorsed getting a COVID-19 vaccine and said it was “an act of love.”
Arthur Caplan, a medical ethics professor at NYU’s school of medicine, said a similar development process was also used to manufacture over-the-counter drugs like Advil, Tylenol, and aspirin. He said that given the prevalence of the research and the Catholic Church’s endorsement of vaccines, he believed Smith’s argument to be a “non-issue.”
Nonetheless, Harris, the city’s HR manager, said he granted Smith’s exemption from the vaccine, provided he agrees to regular weekly testing—and also swears not to take any over-the-counter drugs that used the same development processes that concern him over some COVID-19 vaccines. If it’s found that he has, the exemption would be violated and he’d need to get a shot to keep his job.
“It keeps us all honest,” Harris said of the agreement.
Smith said he wasn’t happy about the regular testing and that he wasn’t aware of the use of old fetal cells in over-the-counter drugs he takes. But he said that he would be doing his own research to make sure that was true. “I imagine that some of that is not accurate,” he said.
Apart from his anti-abortion stance, Smith also told The Daily Beast he is concerned, as a Christian, with the life-saving embrace of safe and effective vaccines worldwide. He compared the shots to warnings about the “end times” in the Bible and the “mark of the beast.” While he said he doesn’t believe the vaccines are literally the mark of the beast, he said he does believe it is a good “precursor” and “tester” for it.
Caplan, the medical-ethics professor, said that he’s seen all kinds of arguments by vaccine skeptics when it comes to making the case for why they don’t want to take the shots. But apart from those who are immuno-compromised from serious diseases and children, he doesn’t understand why people would deny a free and safe vaccine that hundreds of millions have already taken and that the data overwhelmingly show helps protect against critical COVID infections and death.
Nonetheless, Caplan said, the pushback from cops nationwide is particularly disappointing, given their public-facing role and their sworn oath to protect others. “Last time I looked, on every cop car it says ‘protect and serve,’” he said, “It doesn’t have stenciled on it, ‘I’ll do what I want.’”
Even if officers only want to think about themselves, he said, the opposition is baffling given the staggering number of officers who have been killed by the virus since the pandemic began. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund recently said that COVID was the No. 1 “killer” of law-enforcement officers nationwide in 2020 and 2021.
McEachern, the local college professor, agreed that it was in the best interest of both the officers serving her community and the community itself that they embrace the vaccine.
“They’re supposed to protect and serve. Well in this case, protection extends to vaccinations and serve extends to when the city of Bethel mandates vaccinations, you’re at service to the city, so you do it,” McEachern said.
McEachern cited the current health situation in the city, which was laid out in a recent affidavit provided to un-vaxxed city-workers by Ellen Hodges, chief medical director of the local hospital.
According to Hodges, the local Bethel-area hospital had only 28 regular patient beds and zero ICU beds for anyone with a severe COVID-19 infection.
Since August, the highly transmissible Delta variant has been ravaging the area, and Hodges wrote the surge placed an “enormous and dire strain” on the hospital as well as others in the state. “We are unable to find beds in Alaska or even out of state for patients,” Hodges wrote.
Hodges wrote that Bethel’s large population of Alaskan native tribes are particularly at risk because of COVID’s disproportionate impact on them throughout the pandemic. Children under 12 who still cannot get vaccinated were also in danger, she wrote.
McEachern told The Daily Beast that in light of this, she was saddened to see members of the police department resorting to conspiracy theories and attempting to use the threat of rising crime as a way to get out of doing their part.
When asked if she would be concerned about seeing the police department cut in half next month, McEachern said no—and particularly not for the majority of unvaccinated officers who she said already live outside of the city.
“They’re here for a paycheck and then they go home,” she said. “That just means there'll be some job openings.”
Simmons, the police chief, said he wasn’t going to bother making predictions on what happens.
“How the whole thing ends up on Monday morning, I can’t tell ya,” he said. “Those are personal decisions for them and their family to make. I don’t have a dog in that fight.”