The head of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a majority of whose members previously indicated in a survey that they did not want the coronavirus vaccine, said the day after they began being tested that resistance was softening after a virologist responded to their questions in a video.
UFA President Andy Ansbro said the Fire Department, which kicked off testing Dec. 29, had arranged for 450 vaccinations per day to be administered throughout January.
'Probie' Transfers on Hold
But he also noted that plans to move 300 probationary Firefighters to different firehouses than the ones where they'd been assigned since leaving the Fire Academy in early spring had been pushed back because of a recent 10-percent increase in cases among members of the FDNY, including Emergency Medical Technicians.
"We've been negotiating with the department to limit the detailing and transferring that's going on," Mr. Ansbro said in a phone interview. Detailing is the reassignment of firefighters to different firehouses to cover the shifts of those who are on vacation, out sick or become incapacitated while working; the concern is that moving personnel around increases the possibility that someone who has the virus but doesn't know it could infect a wider range of employees.
Police-union leaders, who had been led to believe their members would get the vaccine at virtually the same time as firefighters, responded angrily after learning Dec. 28 that there was an insufficient supply of doses, causing a delay for the NYPD.
Detectives' Endowment Association President Paul DiGiacomo, who disclosed the hold-up in a memo that day, said that state officials, who have been deciding the order in which both civilians and public employees will get the vaccine, had not provided enough doses of the Moderna vaccine—which is what firefighters are receiving—to allow testing to begin.
Implying that this was the result of clashes between police unions and Governor Cuomo, he said in a statement Dec. 29, "The lives of cops and the New Yorkers we serve are being put in grave danger with the delay of the available COVID-19 vaccine to the NYPD. Detectives have thousands of close-contact interactions daily with the public as we continue to keep people safe, provide medical aid and respond to calls for help...On the heels of the death of six Detectives [earlier this year from the virus] and current rising virus numbers, DEA members need the vaccine before another family is left tragically behind—and they need it now."
After Police Commissioner Dermot Shea told reporters that afternoon that "we're anxiously awaiting [the vaccine] and want to get it as soon as possible," Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch also expressed frustration.
He said in a statement, "Once again, politicians in Albany and City Hall are wasting time with bureaucratic gymnastics instead of looking at the reality on the ground. New York City police officers aren't just on the front line. We cover every part of the front line: from hospitals and housing complexes to the corner store. We have more daily contact with New Yorkers than any other city agency. We are continuing to press for vaccines to be made available to police officers as soon as possible."
Health Workers Went First
Priority has been given to public employees directly involved in health care, starting with nurses and then moving to Emergency Medical Technicians, who last spring largely took over responding to coronavirus cases that originally were also handled by firefighters because of the FDNY's desire to avoid the disease spreading to entire firehouses where employees commonly eat and sometimes sleep when not responding to emergencies.
This had resulted in a far-higher number of EMTs contracting serious COVID infections, even as both they and firefighters were found to be 15 times more likely than the general public to contract the virus, according to a study overseen by the Fire Department's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David Prezant.
Initially, Firefighters had shown a surprising reluctance to receive the vaccine, even as those in the officer ranks were eager to receive it. A UFA survey to which 2,000 of its roughly 8,500 members responded indicated that 55 percent opposed getting it.
But Mr. Ansbro said that he had been persuaded it was wise to get it by a longtime acquaintance, Dr. Eain Murphy, an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at SUNY Upstate Medical University, who at his request agreed to field questions from firefighters and respond to them in a video.
Changed Some Minds
"Whatever was submitted by them, he answered," Mr. Ansbro said. More than 1,400 of his members viewed the video in the first few days that it was available; asked whether many of them who initially had doubts now planned to get the vaccine, he replied, "Absolutely."
He said Dr. Murphy had described to him last spring what the makeup of a vaccine once developed would consist of, "and that's exactly what it turned out to be."
While five EMTs have died of the virus—four last spring and one the night before it was first administered to those employees Dec. 23—Mr. Ansbro remarked, "Fortunately, no one from the fire side [of the FDNY] has died."
The initial reluctance among some Firefighters to get the vaccine stemmed from their belief that having gotten over the virus last spring, they were unlikely to get it again—an assumption Dr. Prezant disputed in making the case that all of them should get it.
Asked whether so many of them having survived the virus without lingering health problems instilled in those who had dodged it so far the belief that it wouldn't take a great toll on them either, Mr. Ansbro responded, "Obviously, no one's looking to catch it."
'Definitely Going Up'
And, he added, the rise in cases within the department—"not as steep as it was in March and April, but definitely going up"—had heightened concerns among his rank and file.
Former UFA President Gerard Fitzgerald, whom Mr. Ansbro unseated in an election held a few months after the pandemic began, said that the advice of Dr. Prezant, long admired for his work in analyzing the effects of exposure to the toxins at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of 9/11 and his assistance to firefighters who developed cancer and other diseases due to their time there, should be taken particularly seriously.
"Dr. Prezant has an extraordinary record of protecting firefighters in every aspect, and he would never guide us wrong," he said in a phone interview.
Mr. Ansbro said that while top FDNY officials had not disclosed a timeline for going ahead with the transfers of the probationary Firefighters, "They're probably going to hold up a couple of months until everyone's had a chance to be vaccinated."
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