Sacramento (CA) Firefighters Get Inoculated

Sacramento Fire Department
A Sacramento Fire Department member receives a COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo/Sacramento Fire Depart.)

Tony Bizjak

The Sacramento Bee

(MCT)

Sacramento’s COVID-19 vaccine program took a notable step forward this week, expanding to include shots for thousands of firefighters and paramedics, the emergency first-responders who treat and transport the most seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

The new group represents the third major at-risk cohort being offered access to the shots, following several weeks of shots for hospital workers, including doctors and nurses, and more recently, the first inoculations for residents and staffers of skilled nursing facilities.

Faced with delays in the first weeks, health officials say they are trying to ramp up vaccinations, although the number of doses available on a weekly basis remains limited.

Sacramento County Health Department immunization manager Rachel Allen said the county is attempting to move forward to new recipient groups before finishing existing groups, essentially overlapping groups as a way of moving more quickly, and using all doses in each vaccine vial once it is opened.

“We don’t want to delay,” Allen said at a public forum Thursday evening. “We don’t want vaccines to be wasted.”

The California Department of Public Health on Thursday advised local leaders to speed up shot-giving and minimize the potential for dosage waste by immediately giving vaccines “to individuals in all tiers of Phase 1a.” That includes community health care workers, public health field staff, primary care clinics, specialty clinics, laboratory workers, dental clinics and pharmacy staff.

Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged this week the pace of vaccinations was too slow statewide, but described the system as a flywheel, difficult to get started and up to speed, but able to run at high speeds later.

While he provided few details about the details on Monday, but promised “a much more aggressive posture” and additional details as a broader rollout is developed.

“By ramping up safe and equitable vaccinations, we can and we will get through this darkest part of the tunnel to the light,” Newsom said in his Thursday statement to local health departments.

Yolo County officials offered their first clinic Wednesday night for firefighters and emergency medical technicians, and Sacramento County followed with an initial round of shots for Thursday.

The vaccinations are voluntary. So far, officials in both counties say they do not know how many first responders will choose to be vaccinated, but they say they expect the majority will. “We are pushing for 100%,” said Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Capt. Keith Wade.

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District spokesman Capt. Chris Vestal said his agency is answering firefighter questions about the vaccine and hoping as well that most firefighters will get the shots.

“We need to stay healthy so we can continue to provide service,” he said. “I’ll get mine tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it.”

Metro Fire, which covers much of Sacramento County outside the city of Sacramento, has dealt with COVID-19 cases among its ranks, but has been able to maintain full staffing, Vestal said.

That’s not been the case elsewhere in the region, said Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522 spokesman Roberto Padilla. Staffing has been reduced in some places by the need to quarantine exposed firefighters, and also by backups at hospital emergency rooms that require ambulance crews to sit and wait outside for the OK to deliver patients.

“There are longer (ambulance) wait times at the hospital now because there are fewer beds,” Padilla said.

The Sacramento region has not seen the now-routine hours-long waits ambulance crews in Southern California deal with at overcrowded hospitals, Padilla said. But fire officials say the new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus beginning to circulate has them worried that there could be more cases soon, including among first responders.

Vestal of Metro Fire said officials are hoping firefighters will get the shots to avoid staffing issues going forward.

Vaccination teams also began last week and this week going into skilled nursing facilities in the area to give shots to staffers and residents. That work is expected to take several weeks.

Representatives of skilled nursing facilities say they are eager for more doses to arrive and for inoculations to speed up, pointing out that congregate care facilities have the most at-risk residents and continue to be the epicenter of the pandemic’s worst cases.

The vaccination process so far has unfolded more slowly, both nationally and locally, than health officials had hoped.

Three weeks after a UC Davis Health nurse got the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine in Sacramento County, only a few thousand people in the county have been inoculated.

The effort is essentially being managed on the fly, with changing information on a weekly basis, said Sacramento County Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye. Nearly a month after federal approval of the first vaccines, the county is still lining up clinics and other private partners to will help conduct the inoculations.

Sacramento County officials have not wanted to make false steps. “We want to start carefully,” Kasirye said. “We are making sure our nurses are trained. We want to make sure we don’t have wastage.

“I can understand people who are asking how we can make this faster. We are definitely working on that in getting more (community distribution) partners. This is our highest priority right now.”

Over the next few weeks, county health officials hope to open up more locations to give shots to residents across the county, in anticipation for the larger roll out of vaccines for the general public.

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