Hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines have gone into the arms of Santa Cruz County residents in the past three weeks, but not all of the select few who are eligible for the first doses have chosen to get the shot.
Arizona’s vaccine prioritization system puts healthcare workers, emergency medical services providers and people connected to long-term care facilities at the front of the line for the COVID-19 inoculation. But there’s no statewide vaccination requirement, leaving local organizations to encourage their employees – with varying levels of stringency – to get vaccinated.
“We highly encourage it, but we can’t really mandate it,” said Jeff Sargent, chief of the Nogales Fire Department. “We’re not necessarily doctors to tell people what to go do and not do.”
Sargent said 20 staff members at NFD had been vaccinated as of Tuesday, including himself, which constituted more than half of all department employees.
At the Tubac Fire District, however, all 30 employees have received the first of two doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine after the TFD governing board passed a policy last month mandating that employees get the shot.
Chief Cheryl Horvath noted that her department handles ambulance transports averaging an hour and a half, meaning employees have extended contact with patients who are suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19.
“To just continue to minimize the risk to our firefighters and their families and our staff members, we chose to look at making it a mandatory requirement,” she said.
Horvath said that a few TFD workers had concerns, but added that “it hasn’t been difficult” to convince them to get the vaccine. She also said the policy was developed with a human resources consultant and lawyer to ensure compliance with workplace regulations.
Employers setting workplace policies generally must abide by Americans with Disabilities Act rules, as well as potential religious exemptions. The Santa Cruz County Health Department and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on whether additional limitations could apply to mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies.
Beyond legal questions, vaccine choice among healthcare workers is a contentious issue because many community members are clamoring for early doses of the vaccine. And due to their regular contact with patients, frontline health workers face not just a higher risk of falling sick, but also of transmitting the virus if they become infected.
The Mariposa Community Health Center, which has received nearly all of the 1,700 vaccines that have been shipped to the county so far, is also strongly encouraging – but not requiring – employees to get the shot.
“I think most people are following that,” said Dr. Eladio Pereira, the health center’s chief medical officer.
And at the Rio Rico Fire District, Chief Adam Amezaga said the policy will be promoting but not compelling staff to get vaccinated. So far, he said on Tuesday, firefighters and some office staff that have direct contact with patients have been vaccinated.
Amezaga added that he received the vaccine as part of an effort to encourage employees to do the same.
PPE still in use
Even though all of the agencies that the NI spoke to expect most or all employees to ultimately receive the vaccine, immunization isn’t likely to bring significant operational changes at MCHC or the fire departments.
Horvath said that all TFD firefighters should have received two vaccine doses and reached protective immunity by mid-February, but they’ll still wear protective equipment when they go out on calls as a precautionary measure. The first measures that could be relaxed, she said, are policies on the use of protective equipment while staff are together at the station.
And leaders at NFD and RRFD, as well as the health center, said that employees who opt out of vaccination will keep on working while donning protective equipment.
“We’re short-staffed as it is,” Pereira noted.
Indeed, one of the obstacles to vaccine distribution in the county has been a shortage of staff at MCHC, Pereira told the NI previously.
Since the pandemic began, many agencies have dug into their pockets to purchase sophisticated protective equipment that goes beyond a face mask and shield. Amezaga said that equipment like PAPR respirators has largely kept RRFD firefighters safe, and the department had identified just one case in which a firefighter was believed to have contracted COVID-19 from a patient.