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Are vaccines required for Triangle first responders? Here’s what local agencies are doing

During the heights of the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks were frequently reported among fire departments, with one Johnston County department hit by the death of a firefighter as well as several hospitalizations.

With a COVID-19 vaccine now in use and new cases and hospitalizations surging throughout North Carolina due to the contagious delta variant, municipalities, health care systems and employers have been adding testing and vaccination requirements for their employees.

But across the Triangle, local governments and agencies have adopted different approaches to address the pandemic for first responders, with many leaving the vaccine optional for police officers, EMTs and firefighters.

So far, fire and police departments in Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Morrisville Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough require employees to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. Other departments aren’t requiring the vaccine, but some offer incentives to encourage employees to get it.

Julie Swann, an N.C. State University professor, said first responders are at an inherent risk of exposure to the virus, due to interacting closely with the public. While she encourages people to get vaccinated she doesn’t think they should be mandated. Still, she said, there are many reasons why first responders should get the shot to protect themselves and those they interact with.

“First responders do not get to completely choose with whom they interact on a given work day,” said Swann, who has worked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “So they are at greater risk of being exposed to infectious or communicable diseases.”

Swann said they are also more likely to come into contact with people who may have a severe reaction to the virus, like those suffering from a heart attack, a collapsed lung or an underlying medical condition.

“Police and firefighters, it’s a little bit different,” she said. “But if I needed an EMT, and I was having a heart attack, that EMT would be in very close proximity to me.”

An outbreak that spreads quickly through a fire station could cause problems if an emergency were to occur, she said.

“Society also needs enough first responders to be available for it to effectively function,” she said.

In August 2020, an outbreak at the Clayton Fire Department saw 17 firefighters test positive, with three of them hospitalized. One died from the virus, and the wife of another firefighter died from the illness as well.

In January, concerns over response times arose in Durham when reports showed at least 20 firefighters were placed under quarantine due to potential exposures to the virus. Fire Chief Robert Zoldos said at the time those quarantines had no impact on the department’s service.

For first responders, “it’s not only their own health, but also the health of the community,” Swann said.

“To have no protections in place and no testing keeps a lot of risk on the table, both for the first responders themselves, and for the public that they serve,” she added.

COVID vaccine hesitancy

Some first responders remain hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, though some of their departments will require them to get the shot or get regularly tested.

But for some firefighters, the health risk of the job is nothing new, said Jimie Wright, President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Durham Local 668.

“While this seems new and uneasy for everybody, this is what we do every day,” Wright told The News & Observer in an interview. “We’re trained to wear equipment that protects us from the environment that we’re in. We know how to wear it, we know when to wear it and we’re used to working in it.”

He added there are risks for firefighters that don’t necessarily exist for other city workers.

“Obviously, we can quickly spread the virus, even while trying to wear all the right protection, because we’re living in a station together,” he said.

Wright said Local 668 encourages “everyone to get the vaccination, but we also believe there’s a lot of valid reasons why people choose not to.”

He cited medical reasons and concerns over “the unknown” when explaining why some have chosen not to get the vaccine.

Health experts have emphasized that the vaccine is safe and effective at lowering COVID-19 transmission rates and preventing serious illness or death from the virus. Of the more than 173 million Americans who had been vaccinated as of Aug. 30, just 0.006% reported hospitalizations due to a breakthrough case of the virus, according to CDC data.

Just 0.001% of those vaccinated reported deaths from breakthrough cases of the virus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval last month to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, which had previously been authorized for emergency use.

City employees in Durham, including firefighters and police officers, must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 10, or consent to mandatory routine testing beginning Oct. 18.

“There are these different reasons that someone might not be vaccinated,” Swann said. “You’ve got political conservatives who are not not vaccinated for one reason. You have African Americans, or Hispanics, or Native Americans who might not be vaccinated for other reasons.

“And I think that even if there is a vaccine mandate, we need to give people the chance to work through it with their medical provider,” she said.

“But ultimately, if there is a mandate, it boils down to: You’re either in that role and vaccinated or you’re not,” Swann said. “And I do think that’s important for protecting the public.”

What do Triangle departments require?

The News & Observer asked agencies in Wake, Durham and Orange counties what vaccine, testing and mask policies they require of first responders. Here is what they said.

Wake County

Wake County EMS

  • Wake EMS workers are not required to be vaccinated. Those who aren’t must submit a weekly negative test.
  • Masks are required during all patient interactions and when indoors.

Wake County Sheriff’s Office

  • Wake County deputies are not required to be vaccinated, or consent to weekly testing.
  • Sheriff Gerald Baker is currently considering implementing those requirements, said Eric Curry, a spokesman for WCSO.
  • Wake County deputies are required to wear masks in all interactions with the public, unless prohibited by emergency circumstances.

Apex Police Department

  • Apex police officers are not required to be vaccinated or consent to weekly testing.
  • Officers are required to wear masks when interacting with the public.

Apex Fire Department

  • Apex firefighters are not required to be vaccinated or consent to weekly testing.
  • Firefighters are required to wear masks indoors and while outdoors if social distancing cannot be maintained.
  • On emergency medical calls, firefighters are required to wear N95 masks, eye protection and gloves, and may opt to wear isolation gowns.

Cary Police Department

  • Cary police officers are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 8, or consent to weekly testing.
  • Masks are required indoors for all people over the age of 5, regardless of vaccination status.

Cary Fire Department

  • Cary firefighters are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 8, or consent to weekly testing.
  • Masks are required indoors for all people over the age of 5, regardless of vaccination status.

Fuquay-Varina Police Department

  • Fuquay-Varina police officers are not required to get vaccinated, but they can earn 16 hours of bonus vacation time and a $250 cash bonus for getting vaccinated by Sept. 30.
  • Masks are required of officers when interacting with the public in public areas while inside town-owned facilities.

Fuquay-Varina Fire Department

Garner Police Department

  • Garner police officers are not required to be vaccinated, but are encouraged to. There are no weekly testing requirements.
  • Officers must are required to wear masks indoors, except in “tactical situations where masking is not possible.”

Garner Fire-Rescue

  • Firefighters are not required to have the vaccine, but it is highly recommended. Those who are not vaccinated are required to be tested weekly.
  • Firefighters are required to wear masks while interacting with the public unless outside at a safe distance per CDC guidelines.

Holly Springs Police Department

  • Holly Springs police officers are not required to be vaccinated or consent to weekly testing, but can earn 24 hours of bonus vacation time if they are fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.
  • Officers are required to wear masks when interacting with the public.

Holly Springs Fire Department

  • Holly Springs firefighters are not required to be vaccinated or consent to weekly testing, but can earn 24 hours of bonus vacation time if they are fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.
  • Firefighters are required to wear masks when interacting with the public.

Knightdale Police Department

  • Knightdale police officers are not required to be vaccinated or consent to weekly testing.
  • Officers are required to comply with Wake County’s Emergency Declaration, which mandates masks be worn in indoor public spaces.

Morrisville Police Department

  • Morrisville police officers are required to be vaccinated or consent to weekly testing, effective Oct. 1.

  • Officers are required to wear masks in all indoor public spaces.

Morrisville Fire Department

  • Morrisville firefighters are required to be vaccinated or consent to weekly testing, effective Oct. 1.
  • Firefighters are required to wear masks in all indoor public spaces.

Raleigh Police Department

  • Raleigh police officers must be vaccinated by Sept. 17, or consent to weekly testing.
  • Masks are required in all indoor spaces in Raleigh.

Raleigh Fire Department

  • Raleigh firefighters must be vaccinated by Sept. 17, or consent to weekly testing.
  • Masks are required in all indoor spaces in Raleigh.

Durham County

Durham County EMS

  • Durham EMS workers are not required to be vaccinated.
  • EMS workers must comply with county policies, which require masks be worn in all indoor spaces.

Durham County Sheriff’s Office

Durham Police Department

  • Durham police officers must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 10, or consent to mandatory routine testing beginning Oct. 18.
  • Officers must wear masks in all indoor spaces.

Durham Fire Department

  • Durham firefighters must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 10, or consent to mandatory routine testing beginning Oct. 18.
  • Firefighters must wear a mask when providing medical care outdoors, and in all indoor spaces.

Orange County

Orange County EMS

  • Orange EMS staff must be vaccinated or consent to weekly testing.
  • EMS staff are required to wear masks while indoors, and in all outdoor interactions where physical distance is six feet or less.

Orange County Sheriff’s Office

  • Orange County deputies are required to be vaccinated, or consent to weekly testing.
  • Deputies are required to wear masks in all indoor public places.

Carrboro Police Department

  • Carrboro police officers are required to be vaccinated by Sept. 1, or have an approved exception and consent to weekly testing.
  • Officers are required to wear masks while indoors in town facilities and residential settings, and follow the property owner’s rules when in other indoor public and private settings. Outdoor mask wearing is optional unless an appropriate distance cannot be maintained.

Carrboro Fire Department

  • Carrboro firefighters are required to be vaccinated by Sept. 1, or have an approved exception and consent to weekly testing.
  • Firefighters are required to wear masks while indoors in town facilities, and when responding to EMS incidents. Outdoor mask wearing is optional unless an appropriate distance cannot be maintained.

Chapel Hill Police Department

  • Chapel Hill police officers must be vaccinated by Sept. 10 or consent to weekly testing. Those who are vaccinated by that date will earn a $400 bonus.

  • Officers are required to wear masks while interacting with the public.

Chapel Hill Fire Department

  • Chapel Hill firefighters must be vaccinated by Sept. 10 or consent to weekly testing. Those who are vaccinated by that date will earn a $400 bonus.
  • Firefighters are required to wear masks while interacting with the public.

Hillsborough Police Department

  • Hillsborough police officers must be vaccinated by Sept. 13 or consent to weekly testing.
  • Officers are required to wear masks when responding to any call for service and when interacting with a citizen on a call or during an enforcement action.
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Julian Shen-Berro covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.

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