By Randall Hanifen
Since March 2020, we have worked hard in the emergency services to protect our people. We have put together incident action plans (IAPs), read numerous regulations, and interpreted provisions to keep our personnel safe from the coronavirus and still perform their jobs. All of these changes needed to be evaluated once or twice a week at some points as coronavirus safety precautions were being developed.
Now, we have reached the other side. Most states have relaxed their regulations, and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) have also changed their provisions for vaccinated personnel.
But businesses still have the option to keep their safety provisions in place. This phase will likely be the hardest, as politics and differences have set in over the pandemic and driven many thoughts and decisions.
Internal Issues Regarding COVID Vaccination and Mask Wearing
Internally, we must maintain a balance in regard to health and safety. The CDC, state and local health departments have provided guidance on what to do, but we must still be aware of our healthcare provider status while we’re on medical calls.
One of the biggest internal issues we will encounter is that some first responders were vaccinated and others chose to not receive the vaccine. Currently — and for the foreseeable future — the guidance for actions between vaccinated and unvaccinated people differ.
This lack of vaccination leads to awkwardness and having to trust that people will be honest about their vaccinated status. Most first responder organizations did not track who received the vaccination, fearing that they would encroach on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privileges of their personnel.
Additionally, some organizations did not ask their people who had been vaccinated and who had not. They feared creating internal tension and an uncomfortable environment that could split theie organization.
Leaders of first responder organizations must hope that employees are honest about receiving or not receiving the vaccine. For the unvaccinated, organizations are relying on their personnel to follow the honors system in regard to wearing masks.
But most people, regardless of their political views, do not like to constantly wear a mask throughout the day. As internal personnel begin to see who is vaccinated and who is not, that could create animosity among crews, due to the differences of opinion.
The next issue is the use of sick time. Most organizations removed the no-penalty or free sick time use as COVID-19 vaccinations became available. Most administrations viewed this option as a choice not to vaccinate, but some became sick and had to choose to use their sick time as a choice as well.
The third and biggest issue is the requirement of COVID-19 vaccinations. While many first responder organizations have collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that dictate what organizations can ask of their personnel, some CBAs might not specifically cover COVID-19 vaccinations. Others may not have CBAs at all, which will leave vaccinations to the complete discretion of the department and result in internal strife.
Some first responders predict that a lack of vaccination may not be a problem in the long run, saying that since first responders need to recertify their fire and EMS certifications, the state will require proof of vaccination prior to undergoing the recertification process. While this line of thinking is only speculation for now, first responders must have other types of vaccinations in order to enter into EMT and paramedic school.
Additionally, background checks and a whole host of other requirements have been added throughout the years to allow first responder personnel to get recertified, so I would say this speculation about required vaccination is reasonable. Success and the lack of noticeable side effects from the COVID-19 vaccination will likely be key factors in any upcoming decision.
External Issues with COVID-19 Protection and Vaccinations
Public safety personnel interact daily with the public, and many people take notice. After all, we wear uniforms and show up in large, unique vehicles.
As current requirements from health organizations still require non-vaccinated people to wear masks, the public will assume that unvaccinated first responders will wear masks during public interactions such as conducting inspections or going to the grocery store. Depending on the political climate, this lack of mask usage by unvaccinated first responders may make the public question why the people treating them are not required to be vaccinated.
This lack of mask wearing could potentially become a public relations quagmire for fire chiefs. Either the public will be unhappy that their safety is being disregarded, or internal department members will be unhappy at having to wear masks. Either group could potentially file lawsuits related to requiring vaccinations.
To make it past this pandemic, our only hope is for our first responder personnel to believe in the usefulness of COVID-19 vaccinations to the point where they receive them. Also, the CDC and other organizations may need to stop differentiating between vaccinated and non-vaccinated personnel.
One thing can be guaranteed is that we will see further changes in the future. Until these changes occur, we will not know their ramifications.