Before we start, let's get this out of the way: No, it is not a HIPAA violation to ask someone if they've been vaccinated for COVID-19.
Thankfully, we live in a country where you are free to ask people whatever you want. By the same token, people are generally free to answer however they want. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act only applies to providers, health plans and other organizations that process your health information.
With that in mind, we at the Inlander asked more than 65 local leaders if they were vaccinated for COVID-19. Most of them were either elected politicians or candidates for office, but a few were nonelected public figures we asked just for fun, like embattled Spokane Regional Health District administrator Amelia Clark. If they were vaccinated, we asked how they were encouraging others to do the same. If they were not vaccinated, we asked why not.
Why are we asking these things? Well, because the delta variant is wreaking havoc on us as vaccination numbers in the Inland Northwest are lagging. As of press time, there are 248 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Spokane County hospitals and Kootenai Health — that's more than at any other point in the pandemic. More than 90 percent of them are unvaccinated.
While it would be ideal for you to listen to your doctor and the overwhelming number of public health professionals who say you should get the vaccine, we also know politicians have some sway. Counties with the lowest vaccination rates in Washington, we've found, are also the ones with the highest percentage of 2020 Donald Trump voters. ("You've got to do what you have to do, but I recommend: Take the vaccines," Trump said at a rally last Sunday in Alabama, prompting boos from several audience members.)
And we must admit that, yes, we have a bias here. We think pretty much everyone, politicians included, should get the vaccine. It has been proven to be safe for almost everybody. It reduces the chance that you get COVID-19 and spread it to others. If you do get COVID anyway, it will drastically reduce the chance of hospitalization or death. Those are the facts. It's the way to keep businesses open and get out of the pandemic that's already killed 645,068 in America.
Of the 55 politicians who responded to us, most see it the same way. Only three explicitly told us they hadn't gotten the shot. Two of them said they didn't get it because they already had COVID (though the CDC recommends they get a vaccine anyway). Thirteen were cagey about it and refused to answer our question, citing either personal privacy or bizarre misinterpretations of HIPAA. A few, like Spokane Valley Rep. Rob Chase, spouted conspiracy theories to explain their opposition to the vaccine. Eleven did not respond.
Three of the twelve people who sit on the Spokane Regional Health District's Board of Health declined to tell us whether or not they had been vaccinated.
We should note that we spoke with almost all of these people before Monday's news broke about the FDA's plans to officially authorize the Pfizer vaccine. The one person we spoke with afterwards was Idaho state Rep. Tony Wisniewski, who wouldn't tell us if he'd gotten the shot and said it was immoral for governments to mandate the "so-called vaccination." He said the news about the FDA did not change his mind.
Keep in mind, we didn't ask every local politician if they were vaccinated. So for anyone we missed, you can always write a letter to the editor complaining that you feel left out of the Inlander's pro-vaccine agenda.
THE UNVACCINATEDROB CHASE, state representative (R-Spokane Valley)
On his Facebook page several weeks ago, Chase claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine is "not a vaccine, is not tested" and was "created by Eugenecists (sic) who want a smaller Global population." The post was so filled with misinformation that Facebook took it down — a decision Gov. Jay Inslee applauded.
Our diligent reporting has confirmed that the COVID-19 vaccines are, in fact, vaccines. If the goal were a smaller global population, then they're doing a really poor job, since all the evidence points toward their saving lives.
Chase, in an email to the Inlander, went on to assert that although he is not a health professional, he has "heard many health professionals" say that the "recent surge is from people who have been vaccinated and are shedding." He also says he's against mandatory vaccination and then complained that "anyone questioning the vaccine is censured and/or ridiculed" by the media.
We responded to Chase and explained that the vaccines don't contain live virus, so vaccinated people are not "shedding" the virus. We also explained that although the vaccinated may experience a breakthrough infection and spread COVID that way, the chances of them spreading COVID are much lower than with an unvaccinated person. We have not heard back.
WAYNE FENTON, Spokane Valley City Council candidate
Fenton called us and said immediately that he is "not an anti-vaxxer." He then went on to explain that he is not vaccinated and is not encouraging anyone else to get it, calling it an "experimental drug."
Fenton says he had COVID in October so he feels no need to get the vaccine since he has antibodies (the CDC recommends people get vaccinated anyway). We asked if he'd change his mind at all on the vaccines being too "experimental" if the FDA were to fully approve the vaccines, instead of the vaccines receiving only emergency-use authorization. Fenton said it wouldn't change his mind.
STEVE VICK, Idaho state senator (R-Dalton Gardens)
Vick says he also had COVID in October, and for that reason he has not been vaccinated.
"I do not encourage or discourage vaccinations as I am not a medical professional and believe that choice should be left up to individuals based on their individual health conditions and risk tolerance," Vick says.
THE VACCINATEDNADINE WOODWARD, mayor of Spokane
Woodward got the COVID-19 vaccine in April, and she's been urging others to do the same ever since. City spokesman Brian Coddington notes that recently she and Councilmember Candace Mumm have worked on creating city-hosted vaccine clinics, including some held at neighborhood fire stations.
So far, she's refused to mandate that city workers get the vaccine.
BREEAN BEGGS, Spokane City Council president, Spokane Board of Health
Beggs: "I got vaccinated the earliest I was eligible in April and am strongly encouraging others to do the same!" (Note: You will notice that many politicians ignored the part where we asked how they are encouraging others.)
AMELIA CLARK, Spokane Regional Health District administrator
Clark says everyone in her family age 12 and older has been vaccinated. She says she's encouraging others to get vaccinated because it is the best tool for moving forward as a community.
"Spokane Regional Health District has been leading the way with encouraging anyone who is eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine," she says.
CATHY McMORRIS RODGERS, U.S. representative (R-Eastern Washington)
From her communications director: "Cathy is vaccinated and has consistently gone on record encouraging individuals in Eastern Washington to talk to their doctors about receiving the vaccine so they can make the decision that is best for their health."
After the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine on Monday, McMorris released a statement further encouraging people to seek out the vaccine.
"For anyone in Eastern Washington who hasn't yet been vaccinated, I encourage you to talk to your doctor. Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and your family."
LISA BROWN, Washington state commerce director, former state Senate majority leader
Brown says she encourages friends and family members to get vaccinated or tells them to seek out information from medical experts at Washington State University, University of Washington, or their own doctor.
JIM WOODWARD, Idaho state senator (R-District 1)
Woodward: "Vaccination is a personal choice, but to those interested in hearing my thoughts" — (that's us!) — "I share what I know about modern vaccines including their efficacy and the difference between the mRNA-based vaccines and traditional virus-based vaccines."
PAUL AMADOR, Idaho state representative (R-Coeur d'Alene)
Amador decided to get the vaccine after consulting with his physician. He encourages everyone to speak with their physician to determine if the COVID vaccine is an appropriate medical decision for their personal health background. When more people get the vaccine, we'll be more able to return to normalcy and reduce illness and death, he says.
ANDY BILLIG, state Senate majority leader (D-Spokane)
Billig points out that 96 percent of people hospitalized for COVID in Spokane County are unvaccinated. He "generally supports" the position that getting the vaccine should be an individual's choice, but that doesn't mean he understands the choice to avoid the vaccine, unless there's a legitimate medical reason.
"I do not understand the decision to put yourself, your family and your community at risk by not getting a vaccination that is proven to be so beneficial," Billig says on his Facebook page.
MARCUS RICCELLI, state representative (D-Spokane)
When asked how he's encouraging others to get vaccinated, Riccelli says he's using social media, supporting public health and sharing information on vaccination sites locally.
KATE BURKE, Spokane City Council
Burke says she's encouraging everyone she knows to get vaccinated, posting information on social media. She adds that she helped host a vaccination clinic for the Arc of Spokane, where she's a board member.
MICHAEL CATHCART, Spokane City Council
"As a new dad, I felt it was important to get the vaccine once it finally became available to the general public," Cathcart says. "I am grateful for Operation Warp Speed in getting us to the point where we have multiple vaccine options for the community to consider, and I have supported local efforts to expand access for anyone and everyone who chooses to get vaccinated."
BETSY WILKERSON, Spokane City Council, Spokane Board of Health
Wilkerson says she is vaccinated along with the staff and residents at the assisted-living facility that she owns. She's helped get the word out through the media. "We are now keeping an eye on the booster shot," she says.
LORI KINNEAR, Spokane City Council
"I do personal asking of people who I work with, and if they aren't, I explain why it is vital. [I'm] careful of course not to be 'that person.'"
CANDACE MUMM, Spokane City Council
Mumm was on vacation when we asked this, but council spokeswoman Lisa Gardner says Mumm "played a vital role in spearheading the ordinance passed unanimously by Council on May 17 to support communitywide vaccinations via Spokane Fire Department."
KAREN STRATTON, Spokane City Council, Spokane Board of Health
Stratton says both she and her husband had COVID in February, and it was "the worst experience of our lives," even though they were never hospitalized. Now, she says not a day goes by that she doesn't talk to someone about being vaccinated.
She has raised the idea with other councilmembers of finding a way to mandate city employees get their shots, although the council may not have the authority to do that. Stratton adds that it would have to be something the union bargained as well.
AL FRENCH, Spokane County commissioner, Spokane Board of Health
French tells the Inlander that he's trying to "lead by example," but beyond that, he's not doing much else to encourage others to get vaccinated. "It works for me," French says. "But that doesn't mean it's going to work for everybody, so I respect that."
JOSH KERNS, Spokane County commissioner, Spokane Board of Health
"I encourage people to discuss with their doctors and make the health care choice that is best for themselves and their family."
MARY KUNEY, Spokane County commissioner, Spokane Board of Health
"I have and will continue to encourage members of our community and employees of Spokane County to get the vaccination so that we can move beyond this pandemic."
TIM HATTENBURG, Spokane Valley City Council, Spokane Board of Health
Hattenburg says he has a friend who wasn't able to get the polio vaccine and has been in a wheelchair his whole life because of polio. He says he tries to share stories like that as much as he can to encourage others to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
KEVIN FREEMAN, Millwood mayor, Spokane Board of Health
Freeman notes that as someone who has worked in Africa and South America, he's received many vaccines. He would urge people who have not got their shot yet to consider "all the good" vaccines have done for the world, remembering polio and smallpox.
"The fact that we in the United States do not have to deal with these types of diseases is a direct result of vaccinations."
COVID isn't going anywhere, he says, so the best way to minimize the risk of severe disease is through vaccination.
LINDA THOMPSON, Spokane Valley City Council
Thompson says she tries to promote the work of outreach organizations like the NATIVE Project, Carl Maxey Center and Latinos En Spokane. "It is my responsibility to lead by example. I care very deeply about my community — from the eldest to the youngest — everyone," she says.
PAMELA HALEY, Spokane Valley City Council
Haley says getting the vaccine was a personal choice and that she believes each adult has the ability to make that choice themselves.
OZZIE KNEZOVICH, Spokane County sheriff
The sheriff says medical questions are "protected federal law" (they're not in this case, we've been over this already). But yes, he did confirm he's vaccinated, adding that whatever medication and vaccines one decides to put in their body is a personal choice.
"Despite the political football that has been played concerning this issue, I trust the COVID vaccines produced by Operation Warp Speed and feel that they hold the key to stopping the spread of COVID-19," Knezovich says.
BRIAN SCHAEFFER, Spokane fire chief
Schaeffer says he had COVID-19 early on in the pandemic. And now, he's "proudly vaccinated." He tries to spread the word through the fire department's channels.
"I have always been a strong advocate for evidence-based science and medicine in our practice delivering EMS in Spokane, and we have not changed that practice during the pandemic," he says.
STEVE WIDMYER, Coeur d'Alene mayor
Widmyer, the outgoing mayor, says he and his entire family are vaccinated. He would like for people to follow the science on vaccines.
"The only way out of this pandemic is if we can reduce infections and hospitalizations. I don't want to see people get sick. Vaccinations have been medically proven to reduce the chances of getting sick, being hospitalized and dying from COVID," he says.
AMY EVANS, Coeur d'Alene City Council
"I encourage everyone to do the same to help protect our most vulnerable citizens and slow the spread in our community."
JIM ADDIS, Idaho state representative (R-Coeur d'Alene)
Addis says vaccination is a personal decision and that he respects people who get it and people who don't. He says he got the vaccine because of his elderly parents, but didn't have any further comment.
CHRISTIE WOOD, Coeur d'Alene City Council
Wood says she is "absolutely encouraging others to get vaccinated."
DAN ENGLISH, Coeur d'Alene City Council
English got the shot as soon as it was available. He says he's at a loss to explain why there is such great reluctance to get vaccinated. He grew up when polio was still a threat and saw how grateful people were when the polio vaccine finally put an end to the threat. English has two adult children who served in the military and says he is glad the government is requiring troops to get the shot.
"As a local elected official in Idaho, I/we have really no ability to officially impact people getting vaccinated, but I support all those who do and plead with the rest to reconsider any decisions they have made up to this point not to get vaccinated," English says.
SHELBY ROGNSTAD, Sandpoint mayor
Rognstad says "it is the most significant action we can personally take to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the threat of COVID-19."
MIKE LISH, Spokane City Council candidate
Lish says he's a "strong believer in personal responsibility," and has always followed guidelines in his restaurant to make sure everyone was safe.
ZACK ZAPPONE, Spokane City Council candidate
Zappone replied to our email asking if he was vaccinated and how he was encouraging others to do so by saying "Yes and yes."
NIKKI LOCKWOOD, Spokane School Board
Lockwood says she's volunteered at vaccine clinics, encourages vaccinations on social media and also in personal conversations. She has a health science background, and her husband is a physician at a local urgent care center.
"I see vaccines as highly important to move past the pandemic, and I feel my position is firmly rooted in science and public health," she says.
JENNY SLAGLE, Spokane School Board
Slagle was vaccinated in January at the NATIVE Project, and she says that's helped her ensure the urban Native community in Spokane was protected. Growing up on the Yakama Reservation, she says, "you acted in a way to benefit the whole and not just the individual."
"I continue to encourage our community to be vaccinated by relying on and sharing information from structured sources such as the CDC, state and local public health jurisdiction, and peer-reviewed medical studies reported through credible independent media sources," Slagle says.
JERRALL HAYNES, Spokane School Board president
Haynes says he is "sharing and advocating for people to base their decisions off of complete, accurate information from reliable sources."
MELISSA BEDFORD, Spokane School Board candidate
Bedford says she promotes the vaccines on her social media.
"I strongly believe that it is on those of us who can be vaccinated to get it, so that we can build herd immunity for those who can't be vaccinated," she says.
RILEY SMITH, Spokane School Board candidate
Smith says he's volunteered at local vaccination clinics and encourages family and friends to get the shot. "The science is clear that these vaccines are safe and effective and help protect you and your loved ones from serious illness," Smith says.
DARYL GEFFKEN, Spokane School Board candidate
Geffken says he's been encouraging people to be thoughtful and consider the perspectives of everyone involved when it comes to vaccination. He describes it as a personal choice that has become politicized and a trigger issue. "That said, I'm a proponent of it and have no problem sharing that opinion with people and pointing them to evidence that supports it," Geffken says.
MIKE PADDEN, state senator (R-Spokane Valley)
Padden wasn't reachable by phone or email. His communications director sent us an email with a link to a recent news release on Padden's website. In the release, Padden says he has been vaccinated but strongly opposes Inslee's requirement that state employees and health care workers get the shot.
THE LEAVE-ME-ALONE CREWDAN GOOKIN, Coeur d'Alene City Council
This is the email we got back from Gookin: "?Medical decisions are between an individual and a doctor. The opinions of jackass politicians shouldn't matter one goddam (sic)."
JONATHAN BINGLE, Spokane City Council candidate
Bingle didn't want to answer our questions: "I believe the decision whether or not to get vaccinated is a private decision. I'd encourage anyone to talk to their doctor and make that decision on their own."
BEN WICK, Spokane Valley mayor, Spokane Board of Health
We didn't get an email back from Wick, so we called him. As soon as the Inlander asked whether he was vaccinated, the call suspiciously dropped. We then called back, and he didn't answer, so we left a message. Days later, we sent him a text message. Still no response.
Ben, are you OK? We didn't mean to offend you.
JASON KINLEY, Spokane Board of Health
Reached by phone after two unanswered emails: "At this point my official statement that you can print is that there's no comment."
TYLER LeMASTERS, Spokane City Council candidate
Reached by phone after two unanswered emails: "No comment."
KATA DEAN, Spokane School Board candidate
Dean didn't really answer our question. She says she believes in vaccines and has always vaccinated her five children, but didn't say if she had been vaccinated for COVID.
"[T]his is a private decision and like many I've consulted my doctor and made my own personal decision," Dean says.
Dean says her biggest priority is getting Spokane kids back in the classroom. Along with COVID, she says there is a major mental health crisis among kids and teens that needs to be addressed. She doesn't think Inslee should mandate vaccinations, but does think we should be encouraging people to talk with their doctors about how vaccines will protect them.
ANDREA FROSTAD, Spokane Board of Health
When we got Frostad on the phone she said she'd seen our emails but didn't respond because she didn't have any comment. She says people with questions about the vaccine can go to the Spokane Regional Health District website.
HEATHER SCOTT, state representative (R-Blanchard)
Reached by phone, Scott told us she doesn't do phone interviews and that we were welcome to send questions over email. We had already done that — twice — so we texted the questions instead. Her response: "I do not share my medical information publicly."
In public Facebook posts, Scott has shared links to articles and videos expressing anti-vaccine sentiment. In June, she shared a music video of RC The Rapper performing his anti-vaccine anthem "Just Say No."
"I said doc you must have me mistaken with someone viable / I can't trust you if none of these companies are liable / I'm gonna stay the course like a one way road / Take your vaccine and shove it I'ma just say no"
"I never thought I'd be a fan of rap music, but this guy has me hooked!!" Scott wrote.
Speaking at the Red Pill Festival in Idaho last month, Scott alluded to several COVID conspiracies. "There's definitely something more going on," she said of the virus. "It appears that a plan has been put into place to destroy our country piece by piece, transforming it into regions of a larger global world."
VITO BARBIERI, Idaho state representative (R-Dalton Gardens)
Barbieri didn't respond to emails, but when reached by phone he said we were violating HIPAA just by asking. He attributed his knowledge of the law to his time as a board member at the anti-abortion Open Arms Pregnancy Care Center. We explained that HIPAA doesn't apply to our question, but he still declined to talk about his vaccination status. "I'm keeping that close to the vest. I don't know that I want to talk about my medical conditions."
In March, Barbieri shared a link on his Facebook page to an anti-vaccine article from a fringe Australian news site.
TONY WISNIEWSKI, Idaho state representative (R-Post Falls)
Wisniewski also brought up HIPAA when we called him. When we explained that HIPAA doesn't work like that, he still declined to talk about his vaccination status. Wisniewski also said it's a violation of federal law for employers to ask about vaccine status. Again, it's not.
"Whether or not it is legal to do that, I think it's totally immoral for an employer to insist that an employee get a so-called 'vaccination,'" he said.
Wisniewski went on to describe the vaccines as "experimental therapeutics" that obviously don't work because of how many vaccinated people now have COVID. (In Spokane, more than 90 percent of the people currently hospitalized for COVID are unvaccinated.) Wisniewski has previously shared anti-vaccination memes on Facebook.
MARY SOUZA, Idaho state senator (R-Coeur d'Alene)
Reached by phone after several unanswered emails, Souza said she was busy running for secretary of state and that we should call back over the weekend. It must be a busy election season because we tried that and never heard back.
CRAIG MEIDL, Spokane police chief
Meidl is technically a part of the "Leave-Me-Alone" crew because he was out of the office when we asked. Julie Humphreys, communications manager for the Spokane Police Department, said she didn't want to bother Meidl with a non-emergency matter while he was on vacation (fair enough). She says she doesn't know the chief's vaccination status because it's not something they discuss in the office.
JENNY GRAHAM, state representative (R-Spokane)
Graham got COVID-19 last fall, before the vaccines were available. But when the Inlander asked Graham about whether she's been vaccinated and is working to get others vaccinated, Graham refused to respond. Instead, she went to Facebook — the site that has flagged dubious posts of hers in the past — and declared that she wouldn't be answering our questions, because "it won't matter what I say" and that the paper had "history of printing their opinion over actual verifiable facts."
Graham might be referring to a story the Inlander published last year about the links Graham had been posting on Facebook with conspiracies about COVID, vaccines and child trafficking. After the story was published, Graham left a voicemail calling the reporter a "cocksucker" and claimed the story was full of inaccuracies. Graham has yet to tell us what those inaccuracies were.
In her recent Facebook post, Graham complained that reporters should be held more accountable for spreading misinformation and trotted out a slew of anti-vaxxer talking points, including claims that the vaccines were given emergency authorization before all trials were completed. (In fact, all vaccines passed all three phases of the clinical trials required for approval before being authorized.)
Graham has insisted she's not anti-vaccine. She writes that most people she knows that have been vaccinated are doing well, but also claims that "some are not or have died" and encourages everyone to "find ways to improve your health and natural immune system."
EVERYONE ELSE WHO DIDN'T ANSWERWe sent multiple emails to all these people and gave them more than a week to answer. After that, we called and left a friendly voicemail. We're starting to think they don't like us anymore. Maybe you'll have better luck!
BOB McCASLIN, state representative (R-Spokane Valley): Bob.McCaslin@leg.wa.gov
BRANDON FENTON, Spokane Valley City Council candidate: firstname.lastname@example.org
ARNE WOODARD, Spokane Valley City Council member: email@example.com
BRANDI PEETZ, Spokane Valley City Council member: bpeetz@Spokanevalley.org
ROD HIGGINS, Spokane Valley City Council member: firstname.lastname@example.org
KIKI MILLER, Coeur d'Alene City Council member: email@example.com
WOODY McEVERS, Coeur d'Alene City Council member: firstname.lastname@example.org
SAGE DIXON, Idaho state representative (R-Ponderay): SDixon@house.idaho.gov
DOUG OKUNIEWICZ, Idaho state representative (R-Hayden): DougO@house.idaho.gov
PETER RIGGS, Idaho state senator (R-Post Falls): Riggs@senate.idaho.gov
RON MENDIVE, Idaho state representative (R-Coeur d'Alene): RMendive@house.idaho.gov ♦