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Annapolis candidates find vaccinations, mandates a campaign issue for some voters

Throughout the spring and summer, as he’s knocked on doors in Ward 2, Scott Gibson has heard a question repeated by some constituents he encounters.

Are you vaccinated?

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Gibson, a Republican running for Annapolis City Council, said their reasons for asking varied. Some might be wary of interacting with a stranger in close proximity. Others may think the answer could reveal something about his politics or his thoughts on scientific research on vaccines.

Either way, the question of vaccines, vaccination status and policy around public health has become a discussion topic between candidates and constituents on the same level as other local issues like taxes, sidewalks and transportation during the 2021 election cycle. All year, health and elected officials have urged the population to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and in recent months, new vaccine mandates by employers and governments have kicked in across the country.

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Currently, 59% of Anne Arundel residents — and 60.2% of Annapolis residents — are fully vaccinated, according to Anne Arundel Health Department data.

“It is something voters have asked me as I’ve gone door to door and I’ve been totally fine telling them, ‘Yes, I’m vaccinated. Both doses,’” said Gibson, an executive at a health equity nonprofit organization where he has helped organize vaccination clinics for people with disabilities.

If he is successful in claiming the seat vacated by retiring Alderman Fred Paone — he will have to defeat Democratic challenger Karma O’Neill first — Gibson and other council members may have to vote on legislation related to the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines such as implementing another state of emergency or imposing a mask mandate.

The city has already dabbled in setting those kinds of policies.

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In June, about a month prior to reopening to the public for the first time in more than a year, it was announced City Council meeting attendees would have to show proof of vaccination at the door. The vast majority of the City Council’s members — seven of whom are Democrats — approved of the plan. However, plans were scrapped when Maryland — and subsequently Annapolis — announced it was ending the state of emergency.

Mayor Gavin Buckley touted his record during the pandemic, such as implementing a mask mandate and social distancing rules downtown, distributing public health information and delivering vaccines to underserved communities.

“I think (voters) were glad we were in leadership during COVID,” Buckley said. “We tackled it from a health and economic standpoint. And we did a good job.”

O’Neill, who owns her own event company, recalled two conversations she had with voters about vaccines on the campaign trail.

One woman said it was the “biggest issue” for her, O’Neill said, who briefly assumed the woman meant it was important for elected officials to be vaccinated. When O’Neill inquired further, the woman said she was wary of getting vaccinated because of potential side effects, and added that her boyfriend was on the verge of losing his job because of a vaccine mandate at work. Vaccines have induced moderate side effects in some who receive the shots, such as fever, body aches and chills.

In another interaction, O’Neill said she let the voter voice their concerns but didn’t push back or explain why she was supportive of the shots.

“I’ve just tried to listen and learn from them and then walk away, because I don’t know what else to say to them. I’m not going to convince them to believe my way, but to allow them to talk about it, maybe makes them feel more heard,” O’Neill said. “But other than that I can say that it’s not been a huge topic of conversations, certainly not as huge as sidewalks and dog parks.”

All eight Democratic incumbents were vaccinated earlier this year as part of the city’s continuity of government plan. Several, including Mayor Gavin Buckley and Alderwoman Sheila Finlayson, D-Ward 4, publicized their inoculation in order to encourage others to get vaccinated.

Other candidates, including O’Neill, and three Republicans, Gibson, Rock Toews and Monica Manthey, have also been fully vaccinated. A fourth Republican candidate, George Gallagher, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Not all have heard from voters who view vaccinations as a political issue.

Ross Arnett, the incumbent Ward 8 Democrat, said his constituents mostly discuss the budget, parking and how much their water bill has gone up, and little to nothing about vaccines.

“It’s the local issues,” he said. “The closest we come is those who ask if the recovery zones will go away after Nov. 1 because it impinges on parking.”

As public pressure mounts on the unvaccinated population, with state, federal and private employers enacting vaccine mandates, one candidate is standing his ground.

Steven Strawn, the Republican mayoral candidate, has not yet received the vaccine. He has opted for masking and regular testing while he waits for more information about the vaccine’s effects.

Strawn, who will face Buckley in a handful of in-person forums and debates later this month, said he generally supports vaccines, having received the full slate of approved inoculations as a child, such as for polio and measles. But the COVID-19 vaccine has given him cause for concern, he said.

“I am a child of vaccines. To me, it has always worked,” he said, but further research is needed.

“We aren’t going to know the full effects of this thing for 10 or 15 years,” he said.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show about 186 million Americans have been vaccinated so far. About 8,200 fully vaccinated Americans, which is 0.004%, have reportedly died since December, however, those deaths are not necessarily attributable to the vaccine and could be from other causes. The COVID-19 vaccine is overwhelmingly safe, health officials say.

A recent Gallup poll showed 56% of registered Republicans in the U.S. are vaccinated, lagging behind 68% of independents and 92% of Democrats. There was a six percentage point jump in vaccinations among Republicans between August and September, the poll showed, likely a sign that vaccine mandates are working.

At a recent campaign event in Ward 1, Strawn was introduced to a resident, Dan Clements, a prominent attorney who is active in Democratic political campaigns. The pair were exchanging pleasantries when Clements raised the question of Strawn’s vaccination status after realizing how close he was standing to Strawn.

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Strawn, who was unmasked, told Clements, no, he was not vaccinated and explained that he had concerns about its health effects. He recalled Clements getting heated and reprimanding him for standing so close.

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Strawn said he and his campaign team are tested regularly to make sure they’re not infected with the disease. He also says he has done nothing wrong and broken no laws and said he is being unfairly targeted because of his party affiliation.

“I have worn a mask. I have also stayed (six feet apart). I am cautious,” the former head of the Annapolis Republican Central Committee said. “No matter what I tell you I am behind the 8-ball, one, because I’m a Republican and, two, because I think that way.”

Clements wrote a letter to the editor in The Capital Thursday describing his meeting with Strawn. The 74-year old said he asks everyone he has close encounters with if they are vaccinated.

For instance, two months ago, Ward 1 Alderwoman Elly Tierney, a Democrat, visited his house on a campaign stop. The first question he asked was her vaccination status. She said she was.

“Why is it important? Because I am angry and offended by people who don’t (get vaccinated),” Clements said in an interview this week. “They are putting my life at risk and putting health care workers and first responders at risk. That makes me angry.”

“It’s an enormous social contract,” he said of getting vaccinated, ”an obligation to not expose your neighbors to death.”

Ten candidates are campaigning for five contested races ahead of the November election, including the mayor’s office, Ward 2, Ward 5, Ward 6 and Ward 8.

To find out more about the candidates visit The Capital’s 2021 voter guide: https://www.capitalgazette.com/politics/elections/voter-guide/?token=1.

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