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Vaccination Rates Vary Among First Responders

Seth Wenig
Police officer Jennifer Leeman is receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Englewood Health in Englewood, N.J., Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.

While first responders have been given priority access to the coronavirus vaccine, evidence suggests local public safety workers are being vaccinated at different rates.

About three-quarters of Pittsburgh firefighters have been vaccinated, the head of the firefighters union said Wednesday. And while the city said it does not track vaccinations for its own workers, Allegheny Health Network reported that of the 1,500 emergency medical services workers with which it works in other municipalities, about two-thirds have been vaccinated. 

Those rates are consistent with some recent figures documenting the general public’s willingness to get inoculated. On Wednesday, Gallup found that 71% of Americans are willing to get the shot, the highest rate the firm has recorded since July. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that, between September and December, the number of Americans who say they’ll get the vaccine rose from 39% to 49%.

Robert Twaddle, Allegheny Health Network’s vice-president of pre-hospital care services, said there are special reasons for first-responders to take the virus seriously.

“There are large groups dealing with the virus every day and putting themselves at risk,” he said. “They are on the frontlines in this fight. They’re the ones responding and facing potential direct exposure in uncontrolled environments and they need to be fully protected.”

Twaddle says AHN prioritizes emergency medical workers and firefighters, who may be the first to render aid in a crisis. Police officers aren’t prioritized so highly, though he said some private pharmacies have done so. 

A representative from Hilltop Pharmacy, which has administered the shots to some Pittsburgh first responders, said that some police had received vaccinations if they met other health criteria, and that city firefighters and EMS workers had a “good turnout.”

Numbers elusive

But precise numbers aren’t always easy to pin down.

City officials “do not know the number of first responders who chose to take” the shot, said Pittsburgh’s public safety spokesperson Chris Togneri. “That is a personal decision and a personnel matter.”

The union representing emergency medical workers did not respond to a call for comment. The president of Pittsburgh’s Fraternal Order of Police union, Robert Swartzwelder, said he didn’t have vaccination rates, but said the city should because it schedules the shots.

“They know exactly who they gave the shots to, and when,” Swartzwelder said.

Swartzwelder volunteered that he has personally taken the vaccine. But while he recommended getting inoculated because “it helps the country get back on track,” he added, “I won’t fault anyone if they don’t.”

Democratic mayoral candidate Tony Moreno is a retired police officer who still keeps in contact with city police. He said many officers are wary of the vaccine due to uncertainty about what it contains, among other concerns.

“The main one that I was told is that you’re going to have to take the vaccine and you’re still going to have to wear a mask,” Moreno said. “It’s like, ‘Why am I taking a vaccine if I still have to wear a mask?’”

Moreno and others estimate that fewer than half of the city's more than 1,000 officers have been vaccinated.

The chair of Pittsburgh City Council’s public safety committee, Corey O’Connor, said “a substantially high proportion” of first responders have received the vaccine.

“[City officials] were really eager to get our first responders the vaccine because they’re on the front line and in constant contact with residents,” he said. “We want to make sure that they’re vaccinated, especially if they’re going home to their family and kids.”

The city’s firefighters’ union president, Ralph Sicuro, noted that, despite achieving a high vaccination rate, “a few” of his members were “hesitant at first” about getting the shot. There was some reluctance, he added, among Black firefighters -- a phenomenon rooted in the fact that the medical community has historically mistreated Black Americans.

“But,” Sicuro said, “once [hesitant firefighters saw] the first about 125 members go through, seeing that there was no negative reaction, they were quickly coming back on board and getting vaccinated.” He said the city’s medical director also helped to persuade more firefighters to get the shot by providing information about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Sicuro expects vaccination rates to increase further. But “I can't say that we'll ever get to 100 percent. I think we have some strong holdouts [who] aren't believers in any type of vaccination.”

'A fine line'

The city has not mandated that its first responders get vaccinated. And Sicuro agrees with that policy because “to force someone to have a substance injected into your body, I feel that it is a fine line that you're crossing.”

Legally, employers can require their workforce to get vaccinated when public health is at stake, though there are exceptions for religious purposes and under rules spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“So if an employee has a medical reason that they can't get a vaccine or a sincere religious objection to a vaccine, then the employer has to make reasonable accommodations to that,” Pittsburgh-based employment attorney Christine Elzer said.

She noted that “what's reasonable depends on the circumstances. It may well be that in certain positions, it's not a reasonable accommodation to excuse somebody from getting a vaccine because of the nature of the work involved.”

For example, health care professionals typically are required to get the flu shot or to be vaccinated against tuberculosis, Elzer noted. But she said, in other contexts, employers might be able to accommodate workers by transferring them to a different position or having them work from home.

With unionized employees like Pittsburgh’s first responders, however, such decisions could be subject to negotiation under collective bargaining agreements.

In that case, local labor lawyer Mike Healey said, “The employer is obligated to bargain with the union in good faith, and that includes exchanging proposals and information. The employer can't just unilaterally implement what their proposal is until the parties genuinely reach an impasse, meaning they’re stuck, there’s going to be no movement.”

The resulting disputes can last for months. And for now, Pittsburgh labor attorney Jay Hornack said, employers should “first see if you can get 100-percent voluntary compliance at your workplace. I wouldn't immediately start out with some mandatory policy.”