Do U.S. firefighter medics get early COVID-19 vaccines? Depends on the state

Firefighters and paramedics wait outside LAC + USC Medical Center during a surge of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in Los Angeles
Firefighters and paramedics wait outside LAC + USC Medical Center during a surge of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in Los Angeles, California, U.S., December 27, 2020.

By Tina Bellon, Reuters

U.S. emergency medical personnel are getting quick access to COVID-19 vaccines in some parts of the United States while fire chiefs in other areas forecast a delay of weeks or months, highlighting the chaotic nature of a rollout that relies on states and counties to plan and administer distribution.

A lack of detailed federal guidelines has forced U.S. states and counties to create their own plans for distributing initially limited doses of COVID-19 vaccines in hopes of curbing a raging pandemic that has killed more than 332,000 Americans.

All states have prioritized nursing homes and frontline healthcare workers, following federal guidelines. But the federal plan does not define frontline health workers, and local decisions sometimes differ on whether the United State’s roughly 430,000 emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, are included.

Missouri’s firefighters and EMTs do not expect vaccination before the end of January or February during the next distribution phase, said Donna Lake, chief of the Kansas City fire department.

Lake’s 1,000 first responders treat and transport COVID-19 patients daily and three of her staff died from COVID-19 during the pandemic. She and unions have written to Governor Mike Parson, urging him to reconsider the ranking and include EMTs in the same tier as hospital staff.

“I feel like we’ve done our part in protecting our community… and it’s disappointing that our governor doesn’t seem to think it’s now time to protect us,” she said.

Parson’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Emergency Medical Technicians respond to 911 calls and transport patients to hospitals. Depending on their training and state licensing laws, they can also administer intravenous medication. Many firefighters are also EMTs.

Firefighters EMTs in California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and New York have begun receiving vaccines. In Florida, state guidelines slotted firefighter EMTs into a later phase, although some counties have inoculated them anyway.

Jules Scadden, who represents emergency medical services at the National Volunteer Fire Council said federal coordination could have avoided the chaos.

“We’ve all come through this wishing there was more federal guidance,” Scadden said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Colorado, where firefighters and EMTs are also part of a later vaccination phase, some fire chiefs are trying to locate vaccines themselves.

“I feel like it’s every person to themselves…but there’s zero coordinated effort from the state of Colorado,” said Don Lombardi, chief at Denver-area West Metro Fire Rescue, which counts 385 firefighter paramedics and EMTs.

Lombardi last week secured 60 vaccine doses for his staff and criticized state health officials and the governor for ignoring requests for vaccine prioritization.

The office for Colorado Governor Jared Polis in a statement said Colorado has prioritized healthcare providers with direct contact with COVID-19 patients to save lives until the vaccine becomes more widely available.

By contrast, Chad Powers, a volunteer EMT firefighter in Minnesota’s Kandiyohi County on Monday received his first shot at a local fire station converted into a drive-through vaccine clinic, attributing the smooth process to effective collaboration between the local health and fire department.

Some 1,600 miles further west in southwest Washington state, EMT firefighter volunteer David Owens on Monday learned he would receive his vaccine on Jan. 3.