COVID-19 Vaccine Availability for Volunteer Fire and EMS

Bob Guthrie, NVFC Connecticut director, pictured after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use. States have already received doses and begun the process of distributing them to be administered to high-priority groups like emergency responders, including several members of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) Board of Directors. Who is getting the vaccine and how it is administered varies from state to state.

“I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccination on December 30,” said Bob Guthrie, a NVFC director and a volunteer firefighter in a combination fire department in Connecticut. “On December 4, members of my department were asked if they wanted the vaccine. On December 9, a signup process was initiated via email for those of us who had expressed interest in taking the vaccine. That list was submitted to the Yale New Haven Sponsor Hospital, which contacted us directly to schedule appointments to be vaccinated. The process was the same for paid and volunteer members in my department.”

“I got word on December 30 that paid and volunteer firefighters in Mississippi that provide EMS will be able to receive the COVID vaccination starting on January 4,” said George Stevens, a NVFC director and volunteer firefighter from Mississippi. “I went online and scheduled an appointment for January 8. It took about 10 minutes to register. We have firefighter/paramedics, firefighter/EMTs, firefighter/EMRs, and firefighters in our county that respond to EMS calls. All firefighters in my county are eligible to receive the COVID vaccinations.”

Some states are limiting initial vaccine doses to emergency responders who provide EMS and have direct contact with patients.

“Iowa didn’t get all of the vaccine [doses] that we were supposed to, so my county received enough to vaccinate all EMS and some fire and police right now,” said Jules Scadden, vice chair of the NVFC EMS/Rescue Section and the director of a rural ambulance company in Iowa. “Because of scarcity of vaccine doses, Iowa put fire and police in the 1b phase. I got my first dose on January 6.”

Although many emergency responders are now able to receive the vaccine, some are declining it. In early December, ABC News reported that a survey by the Uniformed Firefighters Association of 2,000 members of the New York City Fire Department found that 55 percent of respondents said that they would not get vaccinated. A December 18 article that appeared in the Tampa Bay Times found similar reticence among emergency response personnel in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in Florida. In both articles, leaders said that they were encouraging personnel to be vaccinated, but that the choice was ultimately up to each individual. There was also hope expressed that as better information about the vaccines became available that vaccination rates among responders would increase.

The NVFC has heard anecdotal reports of volunteer fire and EMS personnel declining to be vaccinated for several reasons, including people being more worried about potential negative health impacts from the vaccine than from COVID-19, feeling that if they haven’t gotten COVID-19 yet that they are relatively safe and don’t need to be vaccinated, and feeling that if they have gotten COVID-19 and recovered from it that they are already immune and don’t need to be vaccinated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of EMS has produced two videos encouraging EMS providers to get both the seasonal flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine. The videos feature national EMS leaders and local EMS providers talking about their experiences getting vaccinated.

In addition to receiving the COVID-19 vaccination, emergency services personnel are being used to administer vaccine shots as well.

“Washington State allows paramedics and AEMTs to provide vaccine shots during a declared public health emergency, such as what we are now in with COVID-19,” said Ed Mund, director-at-large of the NVFC’s EMS/Rescue Section and a volunteer firefighter/EMT. “Because this is outside the normal scope of practice for both levels, each county’s EMS system medical program director must create written guidelines and approve additional training to certify paramedics and AEMTs to provide vaccinations.”

Click here to read more from Ed about how COVID-19 vaccine distribution is working in Thurston and Lewis Counties in western Washington State.