Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea Oct. 6 both endorsed a vaccine mandate because a substantial number of employees in each agency have yet to be inoculated, but the head of the Uniformed Firefighters Association warned that a substantial number of his members would quit their jobs rather than comply.
Both departments are operating under a protocol requiring those who are not vaccinated to submit to regular coronavirus testing protocol. The De Blasio administration has made vaccination mandatory for Department of Education employees and the state has done it for its health-care workers and employees of congregate-care facilities.
'We'll Be Discussing It'
Mayor de Blasio told reporters at his briefing that morning that a mandate for the Police and Fire departments was "what we're going to be discussing in the days ahead." He noted that the city successfully defended its DOE mandate in court while ensuring that the agency "applied those mandates effectively."
The result, he continued, was that "95 percent of department education employees are now vaccinated, huge deal. Making our schools safe, making our kids safe. Now we're going to turn our attention to all the other pieces of the puzzle. That's what we're talking about over the coming days and stay tuned for updates."
For the first time, a few hours later, Mr. Nigro endorsed a mandate in comments to reporters following the FDNY's annual memorial honoring active-duty members who died the previous year.
"We lost 16 members of this department—we had two families here today in tears losing their family members to COVID," he said. "I think it is time. People have had a long time to think about this...They are out there treating the public. Their families deserve it, and the public deserves it."
According to the department, 60 percent of its employees have been vaccinated. Since vaccines have been available early this year both fire officers and Emergency Medical Service officers have been vaccinated at a higher rate than their subordinates.
Warns Many Will Bolt
UFA President Andy Ansbro, however, said a mandate would result in a mass exodus of Firefighters that would have a significant impact on department operations.
"I think the Fire Department will have a very hard time," he said. "You can't get National Guardsmen in to fill the firehouses. There is no other firehouse to pull people from. We're barely keeping afloat as it is."
The UFA president said that over the course of the pandemic the department had been shorthanded, with thousands of members sidelined by the virus and a gap in probationary Firefighter classes.
The FDNY has a 1.4-percent medical leave related to COVID with EMS showing one percent of its workers out due to the virus.
"We have not had a class except for this most recent one in a year and a half, and they keep having to move the goalpost on the overtime cap" because of virus-related medical leaves, Mr. Ansbro said.
Up to 700 Might Exit
He endorsed vaccination early on while opposing a mandate, and estimated that 600 to 700 Firefighters, including hundreds with enough service to qualify for full pensions, would opt to leave the job rather than be vaccinated.
Oren Barzilay, president of District Council 37's Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Technicians and Fire Protection Inspectors, predicted a similar reaction among his members.
"I know for a fact that several hundred of my members would leave if it became mandatory," he said. "We are not anti-vaccine. We just want people to be able to make decisions based on their personal medical condition or religious belief."
Mr. Ansbro said that many of his members believed that the natural immunity that they got from having the virus was superior to whatever protection the vaccine would afford them. This continues to be a controversial topic within the medical community with contradictory findings on this subject.
One Doubter Speaks Out
An infectious-disease expert employed by NYC Health+Hospitals who has been advising city officials during the pandemic says it's critical that cops and firefighters be vaccinated because they are "an extension of our emergency rooms" and are often the first people to encounter a patient.
"Anybody who spends any time in the Emergency Room as a doctor or nurse very much views Police Officers, Firefighters and members of FDNY EMS as our colleagues--we are working together," said Dr. Celine Gounder. "They are handing off these patients to us and so I view them as front-line workers. And just as doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and respiratory therapists in the hospital, [they] need to take measures to protect ourselves and our patients."
Mr. Shea during the Mayor's briefing said, "I would be supportive of a vaccine mandate. I've said that from Day One. I think that the science, the health--the emergency situation that we're in--it makes sense. Currently we're at 68 percent of our workforce. So, our current mandate is either be vaccinated or you submit to the testing and prove that you tested once within seven days."
Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch swiftly responded in a statement, "In the PBA's view, the COVID-19 vaccine is a medical decision that members must make in consultation with their own health-care providers. We have pushed to make the vaccine available to all members who seek it, and we will continue to protect the rights of members who are not vaccinated."