Florida’s first COVID-19 vaccine doses landed in Tampa Bay this week, poised for distribution to the people public health officials determined need it first.
Millions of healthcare workers and the residents of long-term care facilities will get vaccinated first. Next up will be essential workers, including firefighters, paramedics and police officers.
But when it’s their turn, will Tampa Bay’s first-responders get the shot?
A significant number of firefighters and officers said they weren’t interested or were undecided, according to surveys of local fire and police departments conducted in recent weeks.
In Pinellas County, 549 paramedics and emergency medical technicians who work for the county’s fire departments and ambulance company — about 40 percent of the 1,380 respondents — said they don’t want to get vaccinated. Another 28 percent, or 385 people, said they’re undecided.
That means the number who do want the vaccine — 32 percent, or 446 people — were in the minority.
Law enforcement surveys show similar results. At the St. Petersburg Police Department, about a third of the 472 respondents said yes. But 35 percent said no and 31 percent were undecided — about two-thirds of respondents.
The findings raise questions about the potential risks to the public, and to first-responders themselves, if so many decline to become inoculated. The risks are particularly high for first-responders, whose jobs involve close contact with each other and the public. The hesitancy around the vaccine also underscores a major hurdle facing the nation as it undergoes the biggest vaccination effort in U.S. history.
“I’m concerned,” said Jay Wolfson, a University of South Florida public health expert. “The virus won’t change. The longer you spend with a great amount of people, the higher chance someone will get it.
“Eventually it will create that cascade into the immuno-risk and high-risk populations.”
But fire and police officials warned against reading too much into the surveys, pointing out that they were distributed weeks before the Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine on Dec. 11 for emergency use.
They expressed optimism that more will get on board with vaccinations as more information becomes available and the numbers of inoculations grow.
“I would put a paycheck on it that those undecideds would go to the yes side once there’s more information out,” said St. Petersburg police canine officer Jonathan Vazquez, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, about his agency’s survey results.
Vaccination hesitation goes beyond first responders. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey published Tuesday found that about a quarter of the public probably or definitely won’t get vaccinated — even if it’s free and deemed safe by scientists. About a third of respondents who identified as essential workers and 29 percent of people who work in a healthcare setting fall in that category.
Skepticism outweighs confidence in the vaccine at other bay area agencies. A survey of 261 Clearwater police employees showed 32 percent, or 84 people, said yes to the vaccine. But 39 percent said no and 28 percent were undecided.
More than half — about 60 percent — of the 2,858 Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office employees who responded to that agency’s survey said they don’t want to take the vaccine, while the remainder said they did. There was no option for those who were undecided.
The surveys don’t elaborate on why first-responders answered the way they did. However, agency leaders said they’ve heard several reasons from employees that are in line with the segment of the public that remains hesitant about the vaccines.
Those include concerns over potential side effects and the speed at which the vaccines were developed. Wolfson added that politicization and misinformation about the virus and the vaccine also likely played roles.
These surveys were also taken weeks before major advances in development of the vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved last week and several others are approaching completion. Moderna’s vaccine was approved late Friday and is set to be rolled out Monday.
The side effects of the vaccines are minor, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The speed at which the vaccine was developed is due to technological advances and the amount of resources that have been thrown into creating one during the pandemic, health experts say.
“Everything I have seen so far, specifically to the Pfizer vaccine … has been reassuring and encouraging to me,” said Dr. Angus Jameson, the medical director at Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services. “The bottom line based on what I know: we should get this vaccine.”
Jameson said he’s been reviewing data from clinical trials and reading up on the vaccines in scientific journals. He’s held several live video chats with Pinellas fire department employees to ensure they have as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions.
In the fire departments with the highest shares of employees willing to get vaccinated, the chiefs believe their firefighters said yes because their personnel have access to the latest information.
Fire departments in Seminole and Safety Harbor responded “yes” at rates of 43 and 44 percent, respectively. The agencies’ leaders said they’ve been providing information about the virus and vaccines “almost to the point where it was too much,” said Seminole Fire Rescue Chief Heather Burford.
“We as a system need to ensure that … everybody has access to information,” said Safety Harbor fire Chief Josh Stefancic, pointing to Jameson’s video discussions as a prime example.
“That they hear from our local experts and see our local leaders believing in it and stepping into it and getting the vaccine and sharing information — that’s what I think is needed.”
Burford added that first responders were “extremely fortunate to be offered the vaccine as one of the first. I’d hate to see that wasted, but I understand that everybody gets the opportunity to make their own decision.”
Both she and Stefancic said they plan to get the vaccine when it’s available to them. So did the chiefs of the St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa police departments.
“I’m probably even going to film it so the officers see I’m not afraid,” said Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan, whose agency is in the process of surveying its employees.
St. Petersburg Fire Rescue had one of the smallest shares of “yes” responses out of all the surveys made public: Just 20 percent of the 285 respondents. About 56 percent said no, and a quarter were undecided.
Division Chief of Rescue Ian Womack emphasized that the survey was distributed too early to predict what first-responders will choose to do weeks from now. He said he wasn’t concerned about his agency’s results, either, because the vaccine isn’t their only tool for preventing the spread of the virus.
St. Petersburg fire employees must wear masks if they can’t maintain social distancing around coworkers, or while riding in fire vehicles.
When interacting with the public, firefighters and medics wear face respirators or surgical-grade N95 masks. No confirmed COVID-19 cases among the public have been traced back to interactions with fire department employees, Womack said. He added that he’s “inclined to” get the vaccine himself but is waiting to see what other information comes out before deciding for sure.
Personal protective equipment rules vary for police officers, with most departments leaving it up to individual officers as to when they wear masks. Police chiefs echoed fire department leaders in saying they expect that more first responders will opt into the vaccine as more people get vaccinated and it becomes more widely accepted.
“This is one of those fear factors,” Clearwater police Chief Daniel Slaughter said, “where people have a little anxiety about the vaccine but once people start taking it ... and everybody sees that they’re doing ok, you’ll see the acceptance.”
Staff Writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.
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