Unvaccinated firefighters could be terminated if they do not comply with the city's vaccine mandate.
D.C.'s health department has ordered that all licensed health care workers in the District, including the city's firefighters, get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 30 — or risk losing their license and possibly their jobs.
The move follows an announcement last month that D.C. would require all healthcare workers to get a vaccine. At the time, officials did not say whether unvaccinated workers would be permitted to receive regular testing in lieu of a shot. This week, the city updated its vaccine mandate language to specify that failure to receive at least one dose of a vaccine before the end of September may "result in disciplinary action against your license, including but not limited to suspension, revocation, or non-renewal of said license."
The ultimatum now has some D.C. firefighters leading an opposition campaign, arguing that the latest order will cause a staffing crisis within the city's fire and EMS department.
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.
"If our force is reduced by a half or a third or a quarter, which is a distinct possibility [because] there's hundreds of hundreds of firefighters that have said they will not take the vaccine for various reasons, then that's going to compromise the ability to care for the city and keep it safe, whether we're talking about fires or responding to health emergencies," said Jones, who in 2014 led a campaign against D.C.'s ballot initiative to legalize marijuana possession. "To lose a couple hundred firefighters would significantly impact our ability to safely care for the city, as well as endanger our own operations when responding to fires."
Jones, who declined to disclose whether or not he has been vaccinated, said that he is not opposed to the vaccines themselves, but takes issue with how D.C. is enforcing the mandate. Instead of terminating individuals who refuse a vaccine, he said FEMS workers who do not get a vaccine should be permitted to undergo a rapid test before reporting for their shift.
"We're simply allowing for those that, for whatever the reason may be, don't want to get vaccinated, to be tested upon assumption of duty," Jones said. "With the rapid test and wearing the proper PPE, we feel that this would be the best way forward to keep the department functioning effectively as well as keeping the citizens of the city safe."
D.C.'s vaccine mandate for government workers, who are expected to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 19, allows those who forego a shot to undergo weekly testing. President Joe Biden's mandate for federal workers also enacts strict testing and distancing rules on those who fail to get their vaccines.
As is the case with other vaccine mandates, a D.C.-licensed healthcare worker can request a religious or medical exemption. According to D.C. Health, an employee would need to show documentation stating that "their vaccination against COVID-19 would violate a sincerely held religious belief." For medical exemptions, an employee would need to submit a written letter from a licensed healthcare provider stating the vaccination is "medically inadvisable."
D.C. Fire Chief John Donnelly held a department-wide town hall on Tuesday morning to allow employees to ask questions, but the decision to revoke an employee's license ultimately rests with D.C. Health. Spokespeople for D.C. Health did not immediately respond to DCist/WAMU's request for comment on the mandate.
"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."
Similar mandates for first responders have drawn pushback from unions in cities across the country. In Richmond, unions representing firefighters and first responders asked officials to put a pause on the vaccine mandate, and in Los Angeles, a group of firefighters launched a new group, "Firefighters for Freedom," to fight the city's vaccine mandate for government workers.
According to Jones, leadership of Local 36, the union representing D.C.'s firefighters, has been "noncommittal." In a direct message from the union's Twitter account reviewed by DCist/WAMU, the union clarified that both Jones and Bernhard were not speaking for the union collectively.
"They haven't said they support the mandate, they haven't said they oppose it, they're just basically giving us the runaround," Jones said.
Union president Dabney Hudson told DCist/WAMU in a written statement that they are "currently in negotiations with the city on the implementation [of the mandate]," and "hopeful that a resoultion that works for all parties can be reached."
Regionally, Montgomery County government employees are required to submit proof of vaccination by Sept. 18 or undergo weekly testing. Neither Maryland nor Virginia has handed down a vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, but hospitals across the region have announced mandates for their own staff.
The update to D.C.'s healthcare vaccine mandate comes amid the continued surge in COVID-19 cases, driven by the more-transmissible Delta variant. According to the Washington Post's regional tracker, the seven-day average of new cases in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia reached a total of 4,700 on Monday, a number not recorded since early February this year.
An estimated 57% of D.C.'s total population is fully vaccinated. In Virginia, 57.3% of the commonwealth's total population is fully vaccinated, and in Maryland, 62%. D.C.'s firefighter force, though, is made up many employees from states as far away as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which currently report lower vaccination rates than the District.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.