The Philadelphia Inquirer
COVID-19 vaccinations began last week in Philadelphia’s Fire Department, with the city’s 500 emergency medical technicians first in line. Among the city’s first responders, EMTs have been in closest contact with COVID patients since the beginning of the pandemic, and the department as a whole has been hard hit by the virus.
But of the approximately 200 medics first offered the vaccine, only about 40% to 50% got the shot, said Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel at a news conference Wednesday.
Medics had cited “everything under the sun” when declining the vaccine, he said, and he didn’t want to “minimize anyone’s concerns.” But, Thiel said, part of the initial reluctance to accept the vaccine has to do with how new it is.
“It’s effective and safe. Once everyone sees it working, I hope these concerns will be assuaged,” he said.
Even though the vaccines — from Pfizer and Moderna — have been produced at record speed, they have been tested on thousands of people in clinical trials, and approved by the Food and Drug Administration for most people over age 16.
The department’s ultimate goal is to have all of its 3,000 members vaccinated, though it’s unclear how quickly that might happen — doses of the vaccine are scarce and the department is unsure how many it will receive week to week. Everyone who has received a first dose of the vaccine will receive a second, though, Thiel said.
Thiel has not been vaccinated yet because he’s not at the same risk as medics and other frontline responders. But he said he was “very excited” to get his dose when he can.
EMTs and firefighters who did get the vaccine spoke about how important they felt it was to set an example to colleagues — and to the public at large. About 100 have received the vaccine so far, Thiel said.
Demetrio Olivieri, a firefighter at Ladder 24 in the Carroll Park neighborhood of West Philadelphia and the president of the Spanish American Professional Firefighters Association, said that it’s especially important for people of color to see their peers getting the vaccine. Black Americans, in particular, can be wary of getting the shot after years of systemic racism in health care.
“Minorities are leery, and we have a right to be leery,” Olivieri said. “But we’re in a state of crisis. Unlike in the past, where we were experimented on, this isn’t the time anymore. The circumstances are different. It’s important to get everyone vaccinated and get back to normal.”
He said he had barely seen his daughter or his mother during the pandemic, for fear of infecting them.
Eric Crawford, a medic who’s worked at the department for five years and got his first shot Wednesday, said he was also looking forward to interacting with his family without fear of giving them the virus. He has four children under age 10. “I take every precaution possible,” he said. “We don’t want to bring it home to our families.”
Transporting patients to the hospital in a pandemic — and all the PPE and sanitation procedures that come with it — has been “stressful, but necessary,” he said. “I love helping people. That’s my main goal.”
Crawford, who works out of a firehouse at Frankford and Linden Avenues in Torresdale, said he believed everyone in his company was planning to get the vaccine.
“I was nervous at first, but now I feel like I did the right thing,” he said. “It’s one step closer to normal.”
Linda Forest, a battalion chief, said she was getting vaccinated because she had family members and friends who’d fallen ill from COVID. “I want to be part of the ones that stop the spread of it,” she said.
She was also motivated by the death of a colleague earlier this year — firefighter Eric Gore, who died at 48 after a long battle with the virus.
“If nothing else, it’s for his memory,” Forest said.
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