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Unvaccinated D.C. firefighters working overtime on Christmas to cover vaccinated with COVID [EXCLUSIVE]
PART 1- Mayor Bowser's vaccine mandate threatens firing as Omicron hits safety
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Captain Mike Engels has been with the D.C. Fire department for 21 years, and this Christmas is the worst staffing shortage he’s ever experienced because of Omicron. Just in the past few days, over 100 members of D.C. Fire and EMS tested positive for COVID and 75% of them are vaccinated.
Engels, who is unvaccinated, said they are stretched to a breaking point — both from fatigue and the fear of being fired for the city’s vaccine mandate.
”I will be working 48 hours straight over the next few days because of vaccinated members being quarantined or COVID positive,” Captain Engels told me in an interview. “But the city is trying to fire the unvaccinated because we are supposedly an undue risk to the public.”
DC Fire spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan told me that, “Our policy limits firefighters to 36 hours straight but does allow for additional hours at the discretion of the Operations Deputy Chief.”
The contagious variant Omicron has swept through DC fire this week. The internal daily reports show 35 positive cases on Wednesday, with 27 fully vaccinated. On Thursday, there were an additional 39 positive cases and 33 of them are fully vaccinated. Up to today, there are 198 on quarantine and 117 tested positive.
“We have guys working 60 hours straight on a regular basis,” said Engels. “These guys have a conscience and don't want to leave a company out of service, but there's a breaking point for everybody.”
But when it comes to safety for spreading to the public, Engels points out that the vaccinated are the problem.
“We are not spreading it because we have to get tested every eight days. They only get tested when they are exposed,” he said.
Firefighter Will Jones is one of the organizers of this group of hundreds of unvaccinated firefighters in DC.
“The vaccinated are coming to work, and it’s spreading from them. We are tested at a minimum weekly, but they come to work even with symptoms,” Jones told me in an interview Friday.
“If this is about public testing and safety, then everyone should be tested before coming to work,” said Jones.
Mayor Muriel Bowser has a vaccine mandate for all city health workers. Hundreds of DC firefighters have been able to stay on the job – so far– with a religious exemption to the mandate.
But in recent days, the city has started sending letters to firefighters denying the exemption.
A firefighter who wanted to remain anonymous sent me his letter dated Dec. 17 from DC Health that gives him five business days to get one dose of Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson COVID mRNA vaccine.
Donelan told me that no one will be fired under the vaccine mandate during the holidays.
“They are cruel people. They treat us like garbage,” Engels said about the department’s leadership. “They are dividing us – we are the freaks”
He said the “hostile work environment” has allowed battalion chiefs to call them “anti-vaxxers” without any consequences.
Another firefighter today me that, “I feel like I’m being made into the villain for not being vaccinated – When three-quarters of those who tested positive in the last week are vaccinated.”
The unvaccianted have to use their own sick leave if they get COVID at work, while the vaccinated do not.
The vaccinated test at work and stay until there is a positive test. The unvaccinated test at home or off-site locations and don’t go to the station house until the test is clear.
Donelan said that “any positive tests are quarantined.”
An unvaccinated firefighter who wanted to remain anonymous shared the department’s COVID policy with me. It says this:
A vaccinated, symptomatic member who has been exposed will be tested but not quarantined, while an asymptomatic, unvaccinated member who has been exposed will be both tested and quarantined.
For members who are fully vaccinated, testing will take place while the member is at work and a minimum of five days after the reported exposure
Members who are not fully vaccinated should get tested immediately when they find they have had close contact. If the test result is negative, they should test again 5-7 days after their last exposure or immediately if symptoms developed.
Unvaccinated members who are quarantined due to a legit non-work exposure will be placed on their own sick leave but may return to full duty at the discretion of the ICG/ICO if the member has had a negative test and is non symptomatic.
“Our problem all along with the mandate is that even though they say it’s for public safety, it’s not,” said Jones. “Those of us who are unvaccinated are getting tested weekly but the vaccinated are coming to work with mild symptoms and spreading it.”
Mayor Bowser’s vaccine mandate for firefighters is putting the city in more danger. She has created a hostile work environment for the very men and women DC residents depend on for their lives. She should let the unvaccinated firefighters who are working on Christmas get the gift of acceptance of their personal health decisions.
UPDATE DEC. 26: DC fire announced internally on 12/24 that an additional 39 firefighters have COVID. On 12/25 there were 23 more who tested positive.
The department stopped giving members the number of vaccinated with COVID after my story was published.
UPDATE DEC. 27: DC fire started putting a vaccinated status on reports again on 12/26 when it reported that 56 additional members have COVID and 43 of them are vaccinated.
GO READ PART 2 NEXT- Don’t call 911 in DC: Staffing shortage from vaccinated first responders with COVID
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