Some city leaders concerned about low vaccination rate among first responders

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 5:40 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Some city leadership is concerned because of low vaccination rates in certain City of Charlotte departments, specifically first responders.

City of Charlotte employees are not required to get the vaccine but if they don’t show proof of vaccination, they have to submit weekly COVID-19 tests.

After weeks of City of Charlotte offering incentives, like cash bonuses, for employees to get the vaccine, the city published vaccine rates broken down by department.

Many departments like the city attorney’s office, finance and human resources have nearly 100 percent vaccination status. But others, like the Charlotte Fire and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, are some of the lowest rates of vaccination. That’s causing concern for some city leaders.

“When I first saw the numbers, it really didn’t surprise me. I think our numbers indicate there is still some skepticism in the community,” said councilman Malcolm Graham. “The numbers of our first responders were lower than I would want them to be.”

Here’s a breakdown of all the city departments’ vaccination rates:

  • City attorney’s office (39 employees): 94.9 percent vaccinated
  • Aviation (638 employees): 72.4 percent vaccinated
  • CATS (468 employees): 67.7 percent vaccinated
  • Communication (36 employees): 83.3 percent vaccinated
  • Transportation (351 employees): 76.4 percent vaccinated
  • City Clerk (8 employees): 62.5 percent vaccinated
  • Charlotte Water (913 employees): 72.5 percent vaccinated
  • Community Relations (16 employees): 100 percent vaccinated
  • City Manager (9 employees): 100 percent vaccinated
  • Economic Development (18 employees): 94.4 percent
  • Finance (95 employees): 92.6 percent vaccinated
  • Fire (1,224 employees): 59.4 percent vaccinated
  • General Services (411 employees): 78.4 percent vaccinated
  • Housing (218 employees): 76.2 percent vaccinated
  • Human Resources (54 employees): 90.7 percent vaccinated
  • Innovation & Technology (211 employees): 87.7 percent vaccinated
  • Internal Audit (10 employees): 100 percent vaccinated
  • Planning (109 employees): 91.7 percent vaccinated
  • Police (2,407 employees): 66.6 percent vaccinated
  • Strategy & Budget (15 employees): 93.3 percent vaccinated
  • Stormwater Services (185 employees): 81.1 percent vaccinated
  • Solid Waste (305 employees): 68.5 percent vaccinated

The five city departments with the lowest vaccination rates are Solid Waste, CATS, Police, City Clerk and Fire.

Representatives for both Charlotte Fire and CMPD sent a letter to city leaders saying they were against any kind of vaccine mandate in September. Although the COVId-19 vaccine isn’t required for current city employees, it’s highly recommended. Those who don’t prove their vaccination status must get weekly tests.

But Graham is hopeful that more city employees will decide to roll up their sleeves.

“Their interaction with the public, police officer and firefighter are really virial and important. We need to make sure they are protected from the public and the public is protected from them,” he said.

MORE: Charlotte will now require COVID vaccines for all new city government workers

For the first time, Charlotte officials outlined requirements for the COVID-19 vaccines, in an email to employees Wednesday evening. The vaccines are not required for existing employees but will be required for any new hires, the city said in the email. And employees (new and existing) must be vaccinated to be eligible for a Wellness Incentive program, part of the city’s benefits plan.

The program provides a financial reward to eligible employees and spouses through an annual medical premium savings or city contribution, according to the city.

“We strongly encourage all of our employees to be vaccinated. We strongly encourage the public to be vaccinated. If we’re going to defeat COVID_19, vaccination is the route to do it.”

But not all first responders agencies are battling against the required vaccine mandates. MEDIC was one of the first organizations to mandate it for their employees.

“It’s our responsibility as health care providers to make sure our patients are safe when they are in our care and vaccinations, whether it be for COVID or the flu, makes sure we protect those patients,” said Jon Studnek, the deputy director for MEDIC.

Studnek says it’s important for everyone, not just first responders to be protected.

“My concern with folks who are unvaccinated are regardless of what profession they’re in,” he said. “Because we know the risk of hospitalization and death is much higher than those who are vaccinated. And although we do work closely with those departments, my concern regardless of what they do.”

WBTV News reached out to the Charlotte Fire Fighter Association, a local union, to ask what they thought of the low vaccination rate. Those representatives were not available for an interview but did send us a statement saying they are “encouraging all members to get vaccinated but against mandatory shots.”

“Since the Delta variant has come along and shown that COVID can still be spread by vaccinated individuals, even asymptomatic people, the vaccine must not be considered the end goal. While the vaccine will lessen the effects of covid, it does not stop the spread,” said Tom Brewer, in the statement.

He says there needs to be consistent messaging when it comes to decreasing the spread of COVID-19. The association sent a list of suggestions in their statement for city leadership to consider. You can read the entirety of the statement below. The local law enforcement union did not respond to our request for comment.

Statement from the Charlotte Firefighters Association Local 660:

“Since the Covid-19 vaccine became available to the public in the beginning of 2021, the Charlotte Firefighters Association Local 660, along with the IAFF have stood firm in encouraging all members to get vaccinated but against mandatory shots. Since the Delta variant has come along and shown that Covid can still be spread by vaccinated individuals, even asymptomatic people, the vaccine must not be considered the end goal. While the vaccine will lessen the effects of covid, it does not stop the spread. We need to have a consistent message from city leadership where their actions back up their words. Asking employees to do something as invasive as a vaccine but not doing the most basic safety measures to stop the spread is not a consistent message. Further, we should mention that our employees are overly exposed and hosting super spreader events for the public to join is against CDC recommendations and helps proliferate spread. This goes against our core values of public safety first. In addition to encouraging the vaccine, a holistic approach to prevent the spread of Covid through the department should be implemented. This is a list of suggestions that the Local 660 has put together after talking with other departments across the nation and recommendations from CDC that would be included in an all-inclusive policy:

· Reinforce and hold accountable all members of the department as to the proper PPE that is needed when responding to calls and out in public.

· Cancel in-service training- It has been proven that the highly contagious Delta Variant spreads rapidly through gathering people. A replacement can be to push the training out to the battalions and stations so crews can stay separated.

· Cancel Saturday training- Taking 5-7 companies 45 minutes outside the county to Gaston College During this pandemic is putting firefighters at an extra, unnecessary risk at this time. Like the in-service training, it is extra chance of gathering people together to spread the virus.

· Cancel in-person classes such as officer development. These classes, and some of the firefighter one optional classes should be canceled. Meeting in person still puts the risk of spreading because of gathering firefighters in classroom settings and on breaks. Also, the Mecklenburg County Incident Management Team just cancelled all training until next year because of the risk of exposure stating they wanted to protect their members. These classes should be postponed, or delivery can be done through online learning.

· Cancel public events such as baseball, soccer games and station open houses. These events provide opportunities for virus spread because of the firefighter contact with the general public. While we can control employee behavior, we cannot control the publics. Inviting the public to stations, which are our second homes, should be unacceptable at this time.

· Stations should be closed to visitors- Manager Jones has closed the government building to the public to protect his workers. Chief Johnson should follow his lead. It can be tough to prohibit visitors and families to not visit firefighters, especially on holidays, but we need to control access to our work places. The stations should be closed to all visitors, even City Officials until Manager Jones lifts the ban on the government buildings.

· Find money, either through grants or city funds, to immediately purchase individual regulators for operations. We check out our airpacks every day and use one regulator per position on the truck. While we can attempt to clean the regulators, we cannot get to all parts. Charlotte Fire Department used to have personal regulators but have gone away from that as a cost saving measure. This should be done to assist in stopping the spread of Covid, but other illnesses also.

· Encourage all employees to get vaccinated, and if applicable, get a booster shot if needed. This has been proven to lessen the effects of Covid.

· Follow proper hygiene by washing hands often using soap and water. If that is not available use hand sanitizer.

· If you are in a public area (grocery store, etc..) when you are around people more than your immediate family or coworkers, wear a mask and maintain social distance

· If you are sick, please stay home. If you become sick during your shift, notify your supervisor immediately and go home. The beginning of Covid symptoms and mirror “allergies”, so do not make the assumption that is what it is.

· Reach out to local doctors and medical professionals to discuss the long-term natural immunity that people that have had Covid and see if antibody tests can be performed for City Employees to see if they are immune.

We must all do our part to stop the spread of Covid-19 and the variants so we can be ready to take care of the citizens of Charlotte. These suggestions that Local 660 has made can be part of an encompassing approach to stop the spread rather than a one size fits all vaccination demand.”