Majority of Summit EMS workers opt out of COVID-19 vaccine

Krista S. Kano
Akron Beacon Journal
Tallmadge firefighter and medic David Lee loads his turnout gear into the med unit as he starts his shift at Tallmadge Fire Station 1 on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Tallmadge.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

Public and private EMS workers were among the first Ohioans eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but only about 40% locally opted to get the first dose, according to Summit County Public Health.

"We did some pre-surveys, so it is what we were expecting," Summit County Pubilc Health Public Information Officer Marlene Martin said. "We were hoping for a higher turnout. Obviously, our ideal would have been 100%."

More:Who is getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in Summit County? Here's what we know.

The county started administering the first dose of the Moderna vaccine to EMS workers on Dec. 26 as part of Ohio's phased approach. Distribution of the second dose will begin Jan. 23.

The state is currently in Phase 1A. Hospitals, local health departments and health care systems are distributing vaccines to essential workers in health care settings; pharmacies are distributing to long-term care and nursing home residents and staff; and the local health departments are administering to congregate care staff and residents, EMS first responders and any remaining long-term care facility staff. 

The Summit County health department has received close to 4,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, which does not include the doses issued to the county's hospitals and pharmacies. As of Tuesday, 7,714 people had started being vaccinated in Summit County, accounting for 1.43% of the population, according to the state's COVID-19 vaccination dashboard

Vaccination rates among local EMS workers align with the statewide rates for nursing home staff, also at 40%, Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday. The rate among residents is higher at about 75% to 80%. 

Of the Summit County fire departments that spoke to the Akron Beacon Journal, none were requiring workers to get the vaccine. 

"Since the policy decision at this stage is to encourage voluntary vaccination, any legal position on mandatory vaccination would be premature," Ellen Lander Nischt, press secretary for Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said. "We continue to look at medical and legal guidance as the vaccine rolls out."

In Akron, 219 fire department employees received the first dose of the vaccine, about 63% of the uniformed personnel, fire department spokesperson Lt. Sierjie Lash said. 

"There is understandable concern with a brand new vaccine being available," Chief Clarence Tucker wrote in an email. "Yet we all need to consider the safety and well-being of our family and friends. When it comes to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, we can do our part to encourage and protect those we know. Ultimately, we are not just keeping ourselves healthy, but we make a positive impact on the health and well-being of others too."

Elsewhere in the county, vaccination rates of local fire departments vary. 

Macedonia had one of the highest rates in Summit, with about 90% of eligible staff receiving the first dose on a voluntary basis. Because staff often work at multiple departments, individuals must get the vaccine through the department that issued their medic license. 

The only vaccine mandated at the Macedonia Fire Department is the hepatitis vaccine for those who work as emergency medical technicians or EMTs, “which is basically everybody,” Chief Brian Ripley said.  

“My personal view is that this vaccine is emergency authorization," Ripley continued. "This hasn’t been approved by the FDA. Some of these are kids, and they are kids, only in their early or mid-20s. We don’t know what the long-term effects will be. They should be allowed to make their own decisions.” 

Tallmadge Fire Chief Mike Passarelli  talks about a door which is used for training purposes at Tallmadge Fire Station 1 on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. About 60% of the department recently received the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.  [Mike Cardew/Beacon Journal]

Tallmadge Fire Department also has not mandated the COVID-19 vaccine and does not require employees to submit vaccination records. About 60% of its eligible staff received the first dose, including Chief Michael Passarelli. 

Passarelli did not poll those who opted out.

"What I heard through the grapevine was that they wanted to get it on the second round," he said. "There's a lot of fear and they want to wait and see. I told them, 'Your wait-and-see might be in six months.'"

Summit County Public Health will offer a catch-up day for those in Phase 1A who did not receive the first dose shortly after Christmas, but Martin declined to comment on the timeframe in order to limit crowds of people who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. The health department is communicating those dates with individual departments and agencies. 

Passarelli received his first dose on Dec. 26 during a health department drive-thru event that required preregistration and a valid city ID. An attendant came to his car to administer the vaccine and then instructed him to sit in a parking lot for 15 minutes and to honk his horn and turn on his lights if he experienced any side effects.

Tallmadge Fire Department Chief Michael Passarelli waits in line to get the first dose of the Moderna vaccine at Summit County Public Health on Dec. 26. Attendants came up to vehicles to administer the vaccine, and recipients waited in a parking lot for 15 minutes in case of side effects.

Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said no one who has received the COVID-19 vaccine from the health department has had an allergic reaction to it.

"I got my flu shot a few weeks ago and it felt the same, like a charley horse in the arm," Passarelli said. "That was the predominant problem. Some got a headache, a couple got the chills, but that was the extent of it."

Steve Bosso, the assistant fire chief and PIO for the Twinsburg Fire Department, did not know their vaccination rate, "but it’s relatively safe to say that the vast majority of our members, including myself, have voluntarily agreed to get the COVID vaccination."

Of the Northfield Village Fire Department staff who responded, about 80% received the vaccine and about two-thirds of them reported the expected immune response side effects. Everyone who received the initial dose is planning to take the second dose, Chief Jason Buss said.

He added that those who opted out did so for personal reasons or the belief that there was not enough research or information available on mRNA vaccines.

All five of Hudson's full-time firefighters received the first dose, and of the four full-time EMS employees, two received it and two declined, city spokesperson Jody Roberts said. 

Cuyahoga Falls Fire Chief Fred Jackson said the "majority" of the department's 73 full-time firefighters/paramedics received the first dose of the vaccine, but added he does not yet have firm numbers. 

The next phase, Phase 1B, of distributions is expected to start in about two weeks, but it will depend on vaccine availability and supply from the federal government, DeWine said. Phase 1B includes adults 65 and older; those with severe congenital, developmental or early-onset medical disorders; and adults who work in schools.

Beacon Journal reporters Emily Mills, April Helms, Phil Keren and Doug Livingston contributed to this report. Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@thebeaconjournal.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.