On Sunday, Anchorage-based Alaska Airlines Capt. Eric Moss, 53, died of COVID-19 shortly after testing positive for the coronavirus, the third employee of the airline to die from the virus within the past month.
A person with knowledge of Alaska Air’s COVID-19 response and these specific cases said all three employees were unvaccinated.
The deaths came as the airline mounted a campaign last week to encourage its employees to get vaccinated and is on the cusp of a decision to make such vaccinations mandatory, with some religious and medical exemptions.
Moss’ death followed those of a maintenance mechanic in the Bay Area at the end of July and of a customer-service representative in Seattle this month.
Moss’ death was announced to the airline’s pilot group internally and to friends and family by his two children on Facebook. Alaska spokesperson Alexa Rudin confirmed the three recent deaths, declining to name the other employees.
“We are terribly sorry. We never want to lose any of our employees,” Rudin said. “We have had very few COVID-related deaths. Our COVID case rates have generally trended at or below the U.S. average.”
There’s no information on where the three employees may have picked up the virus and whether it was at work.
And Rudin could not confirm the unvaccinated status of the three who died. “Per company policy, we don’t comment on the personal health information of employees,” she said.
The required action by colleagues who were in contact with the three who died varies according to their vaccination status.
Alaska’s policy is that any nonvaccinated employee who has been exposed to the coronavirus must quarantine for 14 days, while exposed, vaccinated employees are advised to monitor for symptoms and test after three to five days from exposure, self-isolating if they test positive.
Rudin said that though it’s not known whether any passengers might have been exposed through contact with the infected employees, people at the airport and inside the plane should have had the protection offered by wearing masks.
“That’s the reason why there are masks,” she said.
Pressure grows for vaccination mandate
Even before the latest deaths, pressure has been building at Alaska to consider a vaccination mandate following the imposition of such mandates for employees at Google, Microsoft and Amtrak, as well as at other airlines including United, Frontier and Hawaiian.
In a memo last week strongly suggestive of an imminent decision, management told employees that “we are looking closely at whether we, too, will require that employees are vaccinated.”
“As an employer with a duty to keep you safe and given the contagiousness and health risks of the COVID-19 virus and its variants, we are within our rights to make this decision and to ask you for information about your vaccine status,” the memo states.
Such a requirement would not be effective “until at least one vaccine is fully approved by the FDA and would include appropriate religious and medical exemptions,” the memo adds.
A June poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 30% of unvaccinated adults would be more likely to get vaccinated if a vaccine were to receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
President Joe Biden said in July that he expects a fully approved vaccine in early fall. The New York Times reported that the FDA has accelerated its schedule and is aiming to go beyond the current emergency-use approval for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine and fully approve the vaccine early next month.
Rudin said Alaska could announce a decision earlier, but if the company did so it would make it effective only after that full approval is granted.
“We fundamentally believe in the power of vaccines to protect people,” she said.
The person with knowledge of Alaska’s COVID-19 response plans said any employee exempted from vaccination will have to take a weekly coronavirus test.
In the meantime, faced with the spread of the more contagious delta variant, Alaska has reinstated a requirement for all employees to wear masks in company office buildings. Last week’s memo urged everyone “to get vaccinated to protect your own safety and the safety of employees around you.”
In addition, all employees are being asked to complete a form confirming their vaccination status, with those declining to answer considered “not vaccinated.”
Rudin said management will use that data to inform the decision on whether it needs to make vaccination mandatory.
On the airline’s internal employee websites, University of Washington doctors offer advice on coronavirus protection and are available to answer employee questions about vaccine safety.
Airline unions critical
Nevertheless, the Alaska Airlines pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, which is currently in contract talks, criticized management for not providing incentives for vaccination and making it easier to schedule time off to get the shots.
“The company has failed to come to any agreement,” the union leadership said in a statement Tuesday. “Furthermore, adding to this problem recently, management criticized pilots for using sick time in the middle of a pandemic.”
Back in February, the aircraft mechanics union, AMFA — the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association — also had criticized Alaska management for changing the policy on disciplining its members for the use of accrued sick leave.
The union claimed this forced mechanics into a choice to “either call in sick and risk counseling or discipline, or … come to work with symptoms and risk infecting their co-workers.”
On the other hand, both unions insist that Alaska management should not impose an involuntary vaccination mandate without first negotiating with the union.
In contrast, the Canadian government has made the decision for the entire transportation industry — a difference in approach that highlights the more politically charged nature of a vaccine mandate decision here in the U.S.
Last week, Transport Canada, the Canadian regulator, announced a vaccine mandate that will apply to all federal employees by the end of September and to workers in federally regulated industries by the end of October.
At that time, this vaccination requirement will apply to air traffic controllers as well as all Canadian airline pilots, cabin crew, mechanics and dispatchers. It will also be extended at the same time to most commercial passengers traveling by air, rail or large ship.
To reassure air travelers, U.S. airlines rely on a Harvard School of Public Health study published last year.
Citing that study, which was funded by the major U.S. airline lobbying group, the blog on Alaska’s website declares confidently that with layered protections on board, including mask-wearing, “flying on an airplane is safer than grocery shopping or eating out.”
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