Firefighters on the front line, no stranger to risk, push back Covid vaccine mandates

Kentucky firefighter Jimmy Adams saw the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic when he served as a doctor who helped treat the sick on medical calls amid rising cases of covid. He knew of retired firefighters who had died of complications from covid-19. But he felt they were older and likely had underlying health issues, which made them susceptible to the virus.

“That’s how you make your peace with these things,” said Adams, 51, a lieutenant. He believed that the precautions taken by his department protected him. But he refused to be vaccinated against the covid. The reason was not strictly political, he said. He had grown tired of the debate over masks, mitigation, number of cases and vaccines.

In mid-August, Adams and his wife, Sara, who was fully vaccinated, tested positive for covid. She experienced mild symptoms; however, he was hospitalized with bilateral interstitial pneumonia. His potassium increased, causing cardiac arrhythmia. He was on oxygen throughout his hospitalization.

“I was wrong,” Adams said several days after being released from the hospital. ” I suffered a lot. I don’t even know at this point in the game if I will experience any long term effects. Does it change who I am for the rest of my life? I don’t know the answer to that. I’ll be sad if that’s the case.

Adams now plans to get the vaccine as soon as his doctor allows, after recovery. Yet like many other firefighters across the country, he does not support the warrants for covid vaccines.

The fire department and the base are divided on such mandates. The International Association of Fire Chiefs has expressed support for mandatory vaccinations. Conversely, the International Association of Fire Fighters said it “strongly” encourages firefighters to get vaccinated, but doesn’t think it should be mandatory.

Firefighters, who are most often certified emergency medical providers, have been on the front lines of the pandemic from the start. Officials insisted on making sure they would be among the first to receive the vaccines, given their role in the medical system. Yet why, after seeing so much, do so many people trained to save lives still refuse to be vaccinated – while actively fighting against the warrants?

JT Sullivan, a firefighter from Wyandotte County, Kansas, said if he was taking precautions not to bring the coronavirus home when his wife was pregnant, he believed the pandemic had been largely ‘devastated’ through the media – even if he saw the effects in his professional life. He understood that something was happening; he just didn’t believe it was as bad as reported. He believed that it mainly affected the elderly and medically fragile. The 28-year-old did not plan to get the vaccine until a paramedic on his department died of complications from covid on January 1. Sullivan got the vaccine soon after.

“It just caught me off guard because he was younger than my parents,” said Sullivan, who encourages vaccinations but also disagrees with terms of reference.

Several firefighters have said that first responders reluctant to get vaccinated reflect the range of views of many average Americans: some see both the pandemic and the vaccine through a political lens, some believe in misinformation and conspiracies. , some are generally wary of vaccines, and others are not like being told what to do. Adams and Sullivan both attributed resistance to the vaccine to having a “type A” personality and believing that they can exercise control over what happens to them.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña, frustrated with his own department’s vaccination rate, which he assumes to be around 50%, suspects there is some truth to this.

“Throughout the career of a first responder – whether you’re a firefighter, police officer, paramedic – you sort of get a higher tolerance for acceptable risk because you react to all kinds of things that put your life in situations. dangerous and most of the time you come out unscathed, ”he said. “The level of acceptable risk that we are prepared to take is at a different threshold than that of a normal and reasonable individual.”

Peña said Houston officials discussed the vaccination requirement despite efforts by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott to prevent schools and cities from instituting covid mitigation policies. The city’s strained relationship with the local firefighters union could complicate matters. Such mandates have met fierce resistance elsewhere.

A Los Angeles City Fire Captain is under investigation after posting a video denouncing the “tyranny” of an expected vaccination warrant there. The city of San Francisco’s human resources department has recommended unpaid 10-day suspensions for 20 employees, including seven firefighters, for failing to meet that city’s mandate, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Reports in several cities cite employees questioning the legality of such warrants.

A long-standing legal precedent exists for public health and vaccine mandates, said Sharona Hoffman, professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

“It’s not true that ‘This is America and we have 100% freedom.’ We have a million laws and regulations that you have to comply with, “she said, citing, among them, the highway code and employer dress codes.” That’s what it means to being in a civilized society is called the “social contract”.

Allyson Hinzman, a firefighter and president of Tacoma Fire Department Local 31 in Washington, said local unions opposed Democratic Governor Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate. Hinzman said it was rushed and didn’t allow for alternatives, such as weekly covid testing. State employees filed a lawsuit this month against the governor for the tenure.

Firefighters are threatening to resign rather than comply, which Hinzman said would put further strain on departments with shortages of personnel providing emergency services.

She said firefighters are taking precautions to prevent transmission of the virus when responding to calls. A study from the University of Washington indicates that the risk of the virus spreading between first responders and patients is low, due to the safety protocols followed in the field.

“It’s not about the vaccine,” said Hinzman, who was vaccinated. “It’s about giving our members the ability to choose and make decisions for themselves. We’re pro-vaccines, we’re pro-public safety, but we’re just anti-mandate. The point is, you can be all three at the same time.

Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health, sees it differently and said vaccines are the only way to go from a covid pandemic to a health problem that, like the flu, can be managed. Denver has implemented a vaccination mandate for all city employees, including firefighters.

“One of the things that I think is very, very important is to make people understand that these vaccines, especially with the delta variant, are no longer just for the individual,” McDonald said, adding that the hospitals around Denver are at or beyond. capacity due to the surge in covid cases. It is everyone’s responsibility to mitigate their risks to reduce the strain on the country’s medical system, he said.

Peña said officials owe taxpayers to get vaccinated as taxpayers ultimately pay the bills for their workers’ allowances or hospitalizations.

Even though employees resign due to a vaccination warrant in Houston, Peña said, her department has operated throughout the pandemic with reduced staff due to members quarantined after exposure or isolated due to illness. Four Houston firefighters have died from covid.

“I have been doing this for 27 years, and I can tell you that I have never buried a firefighter for a death in the line of duty due to the flu,” said Peña, adding that if the deaths were due in other functions … related activities, the union would push for action. “Just because it’s a medical issue doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking for ways to better protect our firefighters. The vaccine is one way to do this.

According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, which honors and recognizes firefighters who have died in the line of duty, 170 firefighters and 78 emergency medical services workers had died of complications from covid as of September 17.

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