The executive officer of EMS Division 8 in Brooklyn, Mary Merced, hasn’t hugged her grandchildren since the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York nearly 10 months ago.
Verena Kansog, the FDNY EMS Advanced Life Support Coordinator, saw colleague after colleague fall ill with COVID-19 at the height of the first wave in the spring. Nigel Hamilton, an EMT in Brooklyn, said he was scared to be around his children while off duty as the contagious virus raged across the city.
These three first responders are among the first members of the Fire Department to receive the COVID-19 vaccine; the vaccinations began on Wednesday, Dec. 23, at the FDNY Academy on Randall’s Island. When they and other recipients got the chance to explain why they chose to get the shot, they each cited one key reason: protecting the families they come home to.
Merced, who’s been with the FDNY for 27 years, said getting the vaccine was “very important to me, my family and my grandchildren.”
“I still haven’t hugged them since this started in March,” she told the press at a post-vaccine conference. She also cited the death of a colleague from COVID-19 as further reason to get the vaccine, even as members of the public might be skeptical.
“Hopefully, everybody including the public, my family, will get vaccinated because we need some type of normalcy,” Merced added. “Our medical director and the Fire Department provided us with info. I trust what they say. I read and became knowledgeable about it. I took the vaccine today, I feel perfectly fine. My arm doesn’t hurt, which is great. And I have a positive outlook on the whole thing.”
The FDNY’s EMS units suffered greatly during the first COVID-19 wave in March and April — responding daily to thousands of emergency calls for sick patients at the height of the crisis. On one day alone, March 30, the EMS responded to 6,527 medical emergencies — an all-time single day record for the city, averaging out to about 272 calls per hour.
That led to many of the EMTs falling ill themselves; at one point in April, 19% of the entire EMS roster was on sick leave. Five EMS members never recovered.
One of the EMTs sickened by COVID-19, Joseph Volavka of Station 50 in Jamaica, Queens, said he rebounded from the virus after experiencing mild symptoms — but constantly worried about infecting his family off-duty.
Volavka was also one of the first COVID-19 vaccine recipients within the FDNY; those who’ve recovered from COVID are recommended to receive the shot to guard against possible reinfection.
“Just getting this vaccine is important,” he said. “People at home are at risk, and they’re not as healthy as some younger individuals may be. And it offers me the peace of mind to be able to go and see those loved ones that I haven’t seen in over a year.”
For Kansog, getting the vaccine means having the ability to safely see her mother and other loved ones for the first time in nearly a year.
“I was super-excited to find out the department was doing the vaccine, and for me to finally go home and be around my mom for the holidays, it means the world to me,” she said. “I haven’t seen her in a year because of COVID and I was afraid to bring it home to her.”
Along with protecting their immediate family, many of the first vaccinated EMTs also encouraged their FDNY colleagues to get the vaccine as well.
Skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine has run rampant throughout the department, particularly among firefighters; a recent commissioned poll indicated that more than half of firefighters said they would not get the COVID-19 shot.
The Fire Department is making the vaccine available to all of its members, but it has not mandated that they all receive it. Kansog and Hamilton believe all should get the vaccine to provide peace of mind for themselves, their colleagues and their loved ones.
“I understand people are hesitant to get it, but I really hope they follow our suit, follow us and get this, and know that they will be safe and they can continue doing their job as wonderfully as they do,” Kansog said.
“It’s a sigh of relief,” said Hamilton, who will receive the shot Monday. “I can go home and not have to worry about bringing anything home to my family. I encourage my sisters and brothers in the Fire Department to go and take the vaccine.”
The EMTs, as essential healthcare workers, are included in Phase 1 of the vaccination process in New York state. Other essential frontline workers, including certified first responder firefighters, are in Phase 2; they will begin to receive vaccines starting Tuesday, Dec. 29.
The vaccines, all of which are the Moderna version, are being distributed at the FDNY Academy on Randall’s Island, at the EMS Academy in Fort Totten, Queens, and FDNY Headquarters at MetroTech, Brooklyn. The FDNY has the capacity to inoculate up to 450 members per day at all three locations combined.
The Moderna vaccines is administered in two phases, at least 28 days apart.
“This is a great day for the FDNY. Science has answered the call for help from our department and all essential frontline healthcare workers and produced a vaccine to combat this deadly illness,” said Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro. “I strongly encourage all of our members to take the COVID-19 vaccine offered through the department to protect themselves, their colleagues and their loved ones. Through our vaccination process, we will further improve the safety of our members during this pandemic and ensure that the FDNY will continue to protect and care for the city our members bravely serve.”