Vax battle brewing after DC firefighters told to get the shot or face consequences

Some firefighters push back over health department order that could lead to job loss

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Based on developments Tuesday this could be an interesting couple of weeks for the DC Fire & EMS Department. According to news reports, Chief John Donnelly made it clear that health care workers licensed by the city — including fire and EMS –must have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by September 30. It’s an order from the DC Health Department. Those who don’t comply could face losing licenses and jobs. Donnelly shared the message in a Zoom town hall meeting.

Two DC firefighters are pushing for regular testing instead of mandatory vaccination. They claim as many as 200 firefighters will put their jobs on the line and say no to the vaccine, but apparently hundreds more than that are currently unvaccinated.

Colleen Grablick, DCist.com:

Will Jones III, a five-year department veteran, and D.C. FEMS Sergeant Christopher Bernhard sent an email to several Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners on Monday asking for their support. The two argued that the vaccine requirement could cause a drastic reduction of the city’s firefighter force and impede the department’s abilities to respond to emergencies. According to their email, an estimated 900 workers – about 48% of the department’s total staff — have not received a COVID-19 vaccine. A spokesperson for DC Fire & EMS could not confirm this number, but the department has been trying to overcome vaccine hesitancy among its force for months.

“This isn’t a fire department policy,” says D.C. Fire & EMS spokesperson Jennifer Donelan. “We’re just complying with rules that came down, rules that originated elsewhere, not from us. This isn’t a DC FEMS thing… you’re getting a reaction from two D.C. firefighters.”

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Jones and Bernhard’s campaign to win the hearts and minds of the public and ultimately Mayor Muriel Bowser on this issue might be a struggle. WUSA-TV’s Delia Goncalves talked to some DC residents who see the benefits of vaccinated firefighters and EMS crews (see video above).

Delia Goncalves, WUSA-TV:

“This is not at all about being anti-vaccine. This is not about conspiracy theories,” explained Jones. “But the reality is, there are many people that are not comfortable taking the vaccine.”

Jones and his colleague sent a 2-page letter to city leaders pushing back on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s vaccine mandate. They wrote that nearly half the members of the DC Fire Department, about 900 people, are not vaccinated and 200 of them have said they will not get the shot under any circumstances.

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A few thoughts about where this story is headed. The reason Jones and Bernhard reached out to Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners is they know they’ll need pressure beyond firefighters, EMTs and paramedics to get the compromise they’re seeking. Without strong public support, Mayor Bowser backing down seems less likely. That leaves the threat of a decimated department. Jones told reporter Grablick, “that’s going to compromise the ability to care for the city and keep it safe”.

Is that fear enough to convince Bowser and company to drop the vaccination requirement? It will depend on how strongly city leaders believe hundreds of firefighters will actually walk away from their careers and pensions over getting vaccinated. As I said at the start, this could be an interesting couple of weeks.

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