Don’t call 911 in DC: Staffing shortage from vaccinated first responders with COVID
New CDC guidelines for health care workers not same for unvaccinated
“People don’t care if we are vaccinated or not, they want an ambulance when someone is shot,” said firefighter Will Jones, who is unvaccinated. “I walked in my firehouse for my shift, and the ambulance had been sitting there cold for several hours. I’ve never seen that before. There was literally nobody to ride it for hours.”
As of Tuesday, there are 332 firefighters and paramedics with COVID — 75% of them are fully vaccinated, according to internal numbers.
Jones is under threat of being fired for not going along with the mayor’s vaccine mandate. He said that the staff shortages from Omicron show what will happen in DC enforces the mandate on first responders.
To catch up on the crisis, read my story on the unvaccinated firefighters covering for the vaccinated during Christmas here.
The staffing shortage is due to DC Fire and EMS personnel who have COVID, despite the CDC’s updated guidance to shorten the length of isolation and quarantine for health care personnel.
“My firehouse is the third busiest in the country – the busiest in the city – and our engine and ambulance have been out of service from these shortages,” said Jones.
Captain Mike Engels saw the same at his firehouse. “They had mandatory callbacks for people from my shift on Sunday. They arrived to find ambulances that had been sitting out of service due to staffing.”
DC took 20 units out of service on Sunday because a member of each tested positive for COVID. These included four engines, two rescue squads and five ambulances. Two units were taken out of service for staffing shortages on Monday.
On Tuesday, there were only eight out of 43 ambulances and medic units in service in Washington, according to a source in the department.
However, DC Fire and EMS spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan said that this was not related to COVID.
“All of our Fire and EMS units are staffed and in service today,” said the spokeswoman. “This afternoon, we experienced high call volume and long hospital wait times.”
“Even though the units were returned to service the department is dancing with the devil by implementing such horrible policy,” said a firefighter who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
He insists that, “They were out of service as a result of vaccinated members with COVID and unvaxxed members with a negative test sent home to quarantine.”
Donelan said that the short staff does not affect units out of service. “We are answering all calls for service 24 hours, 7 days a week. That has not changed since this latest surge began.”
Since the mandate started on Oct. 1, there have been 452 members testing positive for COVID and 77% of them were fully vaccinated or had booster shots.
Washington updated its COVID policy on Tuesday to adjust to the CDC isolation and quarantine changes for health care workers. (The new DC policy in PDF is at the bottom of this story.)
Until now, the unvaccinated were sent to quarantine for 10 days, no matter the test results. Since the weekend, vaccinated firefighters who test positive are told to come back to work after five days.
Donelan said that “the guidance is evolving” and that the new policy means “both vaccinated and unvaccinated members who are exposed and remain asymptomatic have no work restrictions.”
But a source in the department disagreed this is happening in practice. “We have had unvaxxed people who have tested negative have been sent home because they were exposed to someone with positive,” said one firefighter.
All the unvaccinated firefighters I’ve spoken to have natural immunity from prior infection.
Jones is one of the hundreds of unvaccinated firefighters who banded together to form this group to oppose Mayor Muriel Bowser’s vaccine mandate.
“The people who will hurt the most from the mayor’s mandate are the people who are underserved,” said Jones, whose firehouse covers the poorest area of the city. “Only 30% of the people here are vaccinated— the lowest rate in the city — so they don’t care if we are vaccinated.”
The unvaccinated firefighters in quarantine want to work, despite getting letters denying their religious exemptions from the mandate.
“The mayor’s policy is much more discriminatory than the virus,” said Jones. “D.C. can’t afford to lose any more firefighters.”
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CDC - Interim Guidance for Managing Healthcare Personnel with SARS-CoV-2 Infection or Exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (updated Dec. 23)
DC data on vaccine rates by ward