Firefighters in Sarasota and Charlotte counties are all eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine as first responders.
But over half of them refused it.
In Charlotte County, only 68 firefighters chose to get vaccinated out of the 242 firefighters employed by Charlotte County Fire & EMS, according to the department’s public information officer.
That’s about 72% of the department’s firefighters who have chosen not to be inoculated.
“I think they’re unwise to not get it unless they’ve recently gotten COVID,” said Scott Hopes, an epidemiologist who worked with the World Health Organization and Chinese government officials during the SARS outbreak in 2003. “What we know is that the vaccine works and these individuals because of their role, firefighters get called out to auto accidents and other emergencies, which means they have a higher risk exposure.”
At the Sarasota County Fire Department, 189 of the department’s 495 firefighters have been fully vaccinated, and another 30-50 are signed up to receive it within the next few weeks, according to Sara Nealeigh, media relations officer for Sarasota County Emergency Services.
Even if another 50 firefighters get inoculated, that’s still over half of the department’s firefighters who have chosen not to receive the vaccine.
“It is a new vaccine, people are educating themselves. You have some personal reasons, but I think a lot of it is just the quick rollout,” said SCFD Assistant Chief Carson Sanders. “Just like anyone else in the community, even though they’re medical professionals, they want the information before they make a personal decision.”
Firefighters in Charlotte and Sarasota counties wear the same personal protective equipment (PPE) when responding to emergencies as they did before vaccines were offered, according to each department.
“We just encourage vaccinations universally. So, of course, we encourage our firefighters and everyone in the community to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Steve Huard, public information officer for the Sarasota County Department of Health. “While it is a personal decision, we respect everyone’s decision. We hope that everyone will eventually get that vaccine. But we’re confident in the knowledge, skills and abilities of our firefighters to perform their duties in a safe and effective manner for the community.”
Before the vaccine was available, SCFD firefighters transported thousands of COVID-19 positive patients and there has been no evidence of any firefighters or paramedics becoming infected with coronavirus as a result of a call that they ran, according to Sanders.
“We’d love to have 100% of our firefighters take the vaccine,” Sanders said. “But again, we also respect the fact that that’s a personal choice … We’re just hopeful that it will continue to be available so that as people make those decisions, they can get vaccinated.”
Sanders did not delve into the reasons that many firefighters refused the vaccine, but said he trusts that the department is doing a good job of educating its personnel.
“The benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the minimum risk,” Hopes said. “Millions and millions of people around the world have gotten the vaccine and there does not appear to be any significant adverse reactions.”
If firefighters who have refused the vaccine change their minds, they can receive it at any time, department officials said.
Experts say that in order to reach herd immunity, 70% to 90% of the population needs to be inoculated.
At a Charlotte County Commission meeting on Tuesday, the county’s health chief Joseph Pepe explained to commissioners that immunity can come from receiving the vaccine, or from being infected with coronavirus and then having the antibodies.
“It’s no different than what you see in fighting a fire, and they do an advanced burn and take the fuel out of it. Same idea with a virus, you’re trying to limit the amount of options that virus has to jump into another host,” Pepe said. “Think of immunity as fewer options for COVID to go to … Theoretically, if you’re not a viable host, then you’re less likely to transmit the virus.”
Huard said that while the DOH is concerned about vaccine hesitancy, the agency is currently focused on getting doses to the people in priority groups who want to be vaccinated.
“We do want to encourage people continually to get the COVID vaccine because it is safe and effective and it will help the community continue to bring those virus numbers down,” Huard said. “We’re concerned about that moving forward, but we’ve still got so many people who actually want it in the priority group. We’re focusing on them at the moment.”