Fighting vaccine skepticism, Philly fire department presses forward with shots

Battalion Chief Lisa Forrest receives the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 6, 2021 from Captain April Smallwood.

Battalion Chief Lisa Forrest receives the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 6, 2021 from Captain April Smallwood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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About a week into its vaccination efforts, the Philadelphia Fire Department has administered about 100 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines to first responders while also running into some resistance from eligible staffers.

Fire commissioner Adam Thiel provided an update Wednesday and said that about half of those in his department who have been offered the vaccine have declined it so far.

“I think folks have a lot of different concerns about the vaccine. We are doing our best to educate them and assuage those concerns,” said Thiel.

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel explains the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine for Philadelphia Fire Department Staff at a press conference
Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel explains the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine for Philadelphia Fire Department Staff at a press conference on Jan. 6, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Part of that effort included a public vaccination event Wednesday where several staffers received the vaccine and talked about its importance. They included Lisa Forrest, who heads an organization for Black firefighters called Club Valiants, and Demetrio Olivieri, president of the Spanish American Professional Firefighter Association.

Olivieri said some Black and Latino first responders have been skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines and he wants to signal that it’s safe and effective.

“We have a right to be leery about it,” said Olivieri. “[But] we’re in a state of crisis where we need to get vaccinated. Unlike in the past when we were experimented upon, this isn’t those times anymore. We need to get things back to normal.”

The department has prioritized “single role emergency medical” workers in its vaccine rollout effort, Thiel said. There are about 500 people in the department with those jobs.

“We’re starting off with the folks who have the most exposure to COVID,” said Thiel.

Next in line will be firefighters, dispatchers, and other department employees.

Demetrio Olivieri, a firefighter with Philadelphia’s Ladder 24, receives the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 6, 2021 from Captain April Smallwood.
Demetrio Olivieri, a firefighter with Philadelphia’s Ladder 24, receives the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 6, 2021 from Captain April Smallwood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We hope that, over time, as more people are vaccinated and we get more education out there that more of our members will receive the vaccine, be willing to receive the vaccine,” Thiel explained. “It is currently a voluntary program and, for now, that’s the way we anticipate it unfolding.”

The department has not revealed how many of its members have contracted COVID-19, but Thiel said the department has been “very affected” by the virus. Veteran firefighter Eric Gore, 48, died from complications caused by COVID-19 in early June.

Eric Crawford sits in front of a Philadelphia Fire Department banner while wearing a mask
Eric Crawford, EMT for Engine 46, received the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Philadelphia Fire Department headquarters on Jan. 6, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Eric Crawford, an EMT in the department’s medic unit, got the vaccine Wednesday and said seeing COVID-19 patients up close convinced him that inoculation is a necessity.

“When you are dealing with that on a daily basis, it opens your eyes a little bit more to the seriousness of the virus,” Crawford said.

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