Why some Delaware first responders won't get the COVID-19 vaccine, for now

Esteban Parra
Delaware News Journal

Not everyone on the front lines of Delaware's COVID-19 pandemic is willing to be vaccinated.

Firefighters, EMTs and paramedics – first responders who tend to have more medical-related duties – are willing to be vaccinated, but only about a third of Delaware’s police officers are so inclined despite scientific evidence the shots are safe and effective.

"They're just skeptical of it," Delaware's Fraternal Order of Police President Jamie Leonard said. "They don't want to be the proverbial guinea pig, I guess. They felt it was a rushed process so they're not willing to jump on board right at the gate."

 A sign points to a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Bayhealth's Kent County campus Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Dover.

Leonard said about 30% to 35% of officers statewide are willing to be vaccinated. He added the range is different for each department with some agencies being about 20% in favor of the vaccine while others are about 50%. 

His findings come from an informal survey of Delaware's larger law enforcement departments, including Wilmington, Dover and probation and parole. It does not include Delaware State Police, which has not responded to Delaware Online/The News Journal on what percentage of its force is willing to be vaccinated. 

Hesitance to the vaccine isn't unique to Delaware. A report by the Associated Press found that front-line workers who have seen firsthand the death and misery inflicted by COVID-19 are refusing shots.

It is happening in nursing homes and, to a lesser degree, in hospitals, with employees expressing what experts say are unfounded fears about side effects. More than three weeks into the campaign, some places are seeing as much as 80% of the staff holding back, the AP reported.

"I don't think anyone wants to be a guinea pig," said Dr. Stephen Noble, a 42-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon in Portland, Oregon, who told the AP he is postponing getting vaccinated. "At the end of the day, as a man of science, I just want to see what the data show. And give me the full data."

New Castle County paramedic 8 Matt Harman, left, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Lt. David Aber Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.

In Manteno, Illinois, a big divide has opened at state-run veterans homes where 90% of residents were vaccinated but only 18% of staff members have. 

The pushback comes amid the most lethal phase in the outbreak yet, with the death toll at more than 397,000, and it could hinder the government's effort to vaccinate somewhere between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population to achieve "herd immunity."

Delaware Division of Public Health officials said they were seeing 55% to 60% acceptance rate among the state's more than 6,000 first responders – a number that's skewed since some of these workers perform other duties. A police officer or paramedic who is also a volunteer firefighter is counted twice. 

Delaware's first responders are among those prioritized to be vaccinated in the first phase that started this month to protect against an illness that has killed more than 1,000 people in the state. 

Coronavirus in Delaware:Stories about coronavirus in the state

State officials are hopeful the number of first responders willing to be vaccinated will increase as they see others being inoculated safely. 

"Additionally, since the drive-thru vaccination events started to be held for this population, more individuals are reaching out with interest to be vaccinated," a Delaware public health spokesperson said in a statement. 

While Delaware police are more hesitant to take the vaccine, other first responders are more willing.

Senior Cpl. Katie Watts, left, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Lt. David Aber Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.

About 60% of New Castle County Paramedics have taken the inoculation, and 96% of Kent County's 50 paramedics have been vaccinated. Sussex County EMS said about two-thirds of its paramedics are willing to be vaccinated. 

VACCINATIONS BEGIN:New Castle County paramedics, police receive COVID-19 vaccines; 60% say they will take it

IMAGES:Nurses across Delaware receive state's first COVID-19 vaccines

Wilmington Fire Department said about 73% of its ranks are willing to be inoculated. Rehoboth Beach Fire Company said about 70% of its members are amenable to the vaccine. 

"Firefighters and EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) are more involved with COVID patients than maybe other public safety agencies," Warren Jones, a spokesman for the Rehoboth fire company, said as a reason for the inclination to be inoculated. 

Dennis Godeck, a spokesman for Christiana Fire Company, said about 60% of personnel has either received the vaccine or has agreed to get it.

"It's our hope as time goes on that all of our people will decide to get it," Godeck said. 

Prepared shots of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine lay at Bayhealth's Kent County Campus COVID-19 vaccination clinic Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Dover.

Despite some first responders' hesitance to being vaccinated, state authorities said these workers take precautions so as to not infect themselves and others by using masks and other personal protective equipment.

Getting people to vaccinate 

Dr. Robert Quigley, a Philadelphia-area immunologist and infectious disease expert, said education is the best way to get people vaccinated. 

"Based on what I'm seeing and what I'm hearing, it's clear that there needs to be much more education of the public at large because there's a lot of fiction that is circulating throughout the communities and the facts need to be brought out," said Quigley, who is senior vice president and global medical director for Philadelphia-based International SOS, a medical and travel security assistance company.

Dr. Robert Quigley

Firefighters and EMS workers tend to be more aware of the health issues surrounding the vaccine, he said. Not so much of other first responders who have less education in health care provisions.

Quigley emphasized that people's concerns about the vaccine being rushed are unfounded. 

The fact that this was processed within a year is no doubt incredible," he said, "but it wasn't because anyone was cutting corners. It was because the [Food and Drug Administration] was provided with the resources and the incentive to get this vaccine approved after phase three trials.

Division of Public Health Medical Director Dr. Rick Hong guides a shipment of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines at the agency's Kent County warehouse on Dec. 16, 2020.

"All of the criteria that are used had to have been met. It doesn't work any other way."

The reluctance to accept a vaccine has played out during other public health emergencies. And in some of those circumstances, public health authorities mandated that vaccines be taken.  

"The federal government can't do that," Quigley said. "But at a state level, a public health level, there can be mandate and there is precedence for that."

Quigley was referring to Jacobson v. Massachusetts, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the authority of the state to require vaccinations against smallpox during a smallpox epidemic at the turn of the century. 

Jacobson was decided in 1905 when infectious diseases were the leading cause of death and public health programs were organized primarily at the state and community levels, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Exemptions to the law, have since come to include medical and religious reasons.

Quigley said the law could be used today if things don't improve with COVID-19. 

"It wouldn't surprise me if in the near future," he said, "particularly the way things are going now, if the public health officials don't come forward and mandate at a state level that the public take this vaccine."

Delaware authorities said they do not have plans to mandate COVID-19 inoculation.

A vial of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at Bayhealth's Kent County Campus COVID-19 vaccination clinic Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Dover.

"First, it is an individual decision; we are not mandating vaccination," said Jim Lee, speaking on behalf of Delaware's Division of Public Health. 

"It is an individual choice, but DPH has provided these groups with factual information about the vaccine, and vaccination staff from the EMS community have also gone through the vaccination process, so they can share their experience," Lee said. "We urge those with concerns to talk to others who have been vaccinated."

Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, eparra@delawareonline.com or Twitter @eparra3.