Fire Department Covid Vaccination Rate Exceeds Key Peninsula, County and State; Braces for Mandated Shots

The Key Peninsula has been spared the worst of the pandemic so far, but a fifth surge of cases means it’s only getting tougher for the fire department.

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Most Key Peninsula Fire District 16 personnel have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Fire Chief Dustin Morrow.

Morrow was unable to provide specific numbers due to privacy policies governing employees and volunteers but said, “We have maybe half a dozen firefighters that are still waiting” to get a vaccine, and a similar number of other staff and volunteers.

With total personnel numbering 59, that puts the department’s vaccination rate somewhere between 80% and 90%.

The next highest rate in the general population of the KP was in the census tract between Minter and Burley at 40.8% by mid-August. The Pierce County average was 46.6% and the state average was 70.7%, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

“We were in the process early to get vaccines, being in the business that we’re in,” Morrow said. “But as with all other organizations we have a small group of individuals who — appropriately — because of their beliefs or the way they choose to live their life, are staying away from vaccinations.”

Morrow said that he was vaccinated against COVID-19 despite his misgivings.

“I always get concerned when processes are quick, when they’re not fully blessed by the authority with jurisdiction, but I felt it was appropriate for me to do it for several reasons. Not just for me but for my family and to demonstrate to individuals here that I think it’s the right path to take, especially when we’re being asked into community members’ homes, in their space, sometimes in very close contact.”

Speaking to KP News in early August, Morrow also said he knew of two individuals in the department who would get a vaccine once it is fully approved by the FDA. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was fully approved Aug. 23 for two doses, three weeks apart, in people 16 and older. It remains under emergency use authorization for ages 12 to 15.

The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines may be fully approved in December, according to the FDA.

Vaccination status at KPFD does not alter individual responsibilities when responding to emergencies, Morrow said.

“The expectations in the organization of the use of personal protective equipment are unchanged and have nothing to do with whether you’re vaccinated or not,” he said. “We have a rigid protocol about what they’re supposed to be wearing and it is layers of protection for them and for us that can allow a vaccinated person to be around an unvaccinated person.

“The reality is we’re the ones going out to people, we are in the mixer of the disease, and our folks have done an excellent job of following the rules,” he said.

The department has had only one member test positive for COVID-19, and that was after exposure off the job.

“We got direct access to testing right here early on,” Morrow said. “In a moment’s notice we could call our district physician, carry out the test and get an answer in 24 hours. Now it’s down to less than 15 minutes. We have to know immediately so we can take action on the individual, so we get them out of the system right away. Some places that were slower would lose a whole shift in quarantine. We can’t afford that.”

Now in a fifth surge of the pandemic, the two-week average of new COVID-19 cases in Pierce County rose from 63 per 100,000 people in June to 606 per 100,000 in late August, according to TPCHD, roughly 98% of whom were unvaccinated. That level had not been seen since vaccinations first became available.

The county seven-day average hospitalization rate for Covid rose from 2 in June to 14 per 100,000 in late August, surpassing rates that triggered stay-at-home orders at the beginning of the pandemic. There have been 6,537 COVID-19 deaths in Washington at press time.

“Data show the delta variant likely makes up most of the cases in the county and the state,” according to TPCHD. A July 28 state Department of Health report said delta made up 75.9% of cases identified from June 27 to July 10. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported July 29 that the delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and more transmissible than the common cold.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued an order Aug. 9 requiring most state employees and all private medical and long-term health care workers to get vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face “nondisciplinary dismissal.” Exemptions for religious or medical reasons will be considered but political or philosophical objections will not be, according to Inslee’s office.

The order includes firefighters, but how it will affect KPFD is not yet known.

“There’s a lot of strain coming into the system right now on this topic,” Morrow said. “Any time we change the workplace environment, it’s immediately a subject of (contract) bargaining. Our best position is to come together as the Washington fire service and say, given this research, this information, this legal advice, this is the position we’re taking, and that process is just starting.”

One department member who chose not to get vaccinated against Covid, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while not objecting to vaccinations in general, their personal concerns and those of some other members included the accelerated development of the Covid vaccines, the lack of full FDA approval, and conflicting information from federal and state health authorities about the disease and the use of masks.

“We have been the front-line workers without a vaccine for over a year and now they’re going to mandate that we take it?” the member said. “We’ve been doing our job, using our masks, our gloves, our sanitation and decontamination procedures, and we haven’t lost anybody to Covid. Not a single death in our field (fire service) in Pierce, King, Snohomish, Kitsap or Mason county. But now for some reason they want to mandate that we get it or else we’re fired?”

If the member still declined to get a fully FDA-approved shot when available, “They’re going to have to fire me.”

Firefighter/paramedic Lt. Doug Gelsleichter, president of the KP firefighter union, said in an email to KP News: “IAFF Local 3152 (is) opposed to the proclamation requiring our members to be vaccinated and show proof of such vaccination by Oct. 18, 2021. … The Washington State Council of Firefighters and the International Association of Firefighters have sent the governor’s office a letter with alternative suggestions such as mandatory testing in lieu of mandatory vaccinations.

“With that being said, it is a mandate and in turn becomes law, and we will comply. The local and the fire district will work collaboratively to find areas of common ground to move this issue forward.”

Morrow said, “I think it’s important for the public to realize that the fire district is kind of like a little city and everything they experience, we experience in our fire family and we’re trying to negotiate that reasonably, calmly and fairly.”


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