How about an Airbnb gift card with your high-priority COVID-19 vaccine?
Or a home security system? A new bicycle? Or a free ride from Lyft?
Those are some of the prizes dangled by top brass at the Los Angeles Fire Department seeking to entice an unexpected group: firefighters unwilling to get the shots.
The reluctance of L.A. firefighters adds to the list of frontline workers in the state who are declining to take the vaccine, a trend that health experts say could have serious public health implications. Last week, The Times reported that up to 50% of healthcare workers in some regions are declining to be vaccinated, citing a variety of reasons that include concern over side effects and skepticism of the science.
Firefighters are on the frontlines of the pandemic, with many working as paramedics and emergency medical technicians regularly exposed to infected patients. More than 670 city firefighters have tested positive thus far, a dozen have been hospitalized and two have died, most recently Capt. George Roque, 57, a 22-year veteran.
To encourage vaccinations, Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas and leaders of the firefighter unions took the doses in a videotaped event that will be distributed this week. It’s “painless, fast,” he said. “I feel fine. Other than that little tenderness, I don’t feel any different.”
And for added encouragement, there are the prizes. Vaccinated firefighters get entered into a raffle where the gifts include Canary home security cameras, Google Nest entertainment systems, Aventon fixed-gear bicycles and gift cards for Airbnb and Lyft, according to a memo distributed by Terrazas last week.
The gifts will be funded by the LAFD Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money to support the department, according to the memo.
The influence campaign and incentives are needed because turnout thus far is far from universal, even though firefighters were the first city workers to get access to the vaccine. Only 1,000 out of 3,400 were vaccinated in the first week, according to the chief.
“The Fire Department is a reflection of society,” Terrazas said. “There are some people who are reluctant because of fear of the unknown.”
The vaccine doubt persists despite clear scientific evidence regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, according to experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trials involving tens of thousands of participants were conducted before the shots were approved for broader use, and a vaccine is now recommended for most adults.
Firefighters are among the most at risk of infection. As part of their work responding to 911 calls and delivering patients to emergency rooms, they are routinely in contact with sick patients. Regardless of whether they get a shot, they are required to wear protective equipment on the job.
There are signs that doubts are widespread in the fire service. More than 50% of New York City firefighters said they wouldn’t take the vaccine, according to an internal poll by a firefighter union.
How widespread that sentiment is here in Los Angeles is not fully know, but top officials say they are seeing and hearing from skeptics in the ranks. Some firefighters say they don’t feel comfortable being among the first to take the vaccine. Others say they have already been infected, so they don’t feel they need the vaccine.
“There are generational mind-sets. The mind-sets of a mid-20-year-old is different from the mind-set of a mid-50-year-old,” said Frank Lima, an LAFD captain and former president of the union representing rank and file firefighters.
During a recent shift at a station in Hollywood, on a day when firefighters were encouraged to drive downtown to get vaccinated, only four of the 10 on duty got the shot, himself included, Lima said.
He encouraged all union members to get the shot, but said that he believes that firefighters deserve to decide for themselves. “While we will fight tooth and nail to give them every opportunity,” Lima said. “We respect their right to make that decision.”
Terrazas said he has made personal appeals for firefighters to get vaccinated.
“I was talking to a firefighter yesterday and I asked him what his reluctance is. He said he wanted to see if there were any side effects,” Terrazas said. “I sent him a link to the CDC website. I think he will see that the data shows that it’s extremely rare to have a side effect.”
Terrazas said he would be watching those numbers closely in the coming weeks. If participation is low, the chief said he would consider making the shot mandatory after the vaccine receives authorization for broader use from federal regulators.
“I would rather have voluntary compliance,” Terrazas said. “At the end of the day, there is the possibility of a mandate.”