City Directors respond to high rate of vaccine rejection among Fort Smith firefighters

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,550 views 

There is not much the City of Fort Smith can do about the relatively small number of first responders choosing to get the COVID-19 vaccine other than provide them with opportunity and information and encourage them to become vaccinated, city leaders say.

Less than half of Fort Smith police officers and firefighters have notified their departments they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Out of the 145 firefighters with the Fort Smith Fire Department, 63 have been vaccinated, said Fire Chief Phil Christensen. Of the remaining 82, 81 have said they either do not want the vaccine or they want to wait for further testing, Christensen said. The remaining one has either not scheduled or is listed as undecided.

The Fort Smith Police Department has hosted two clinics, said Aric Mitchell FSPD public information officer, with 40 officers receiving both vaccine doses. There are 146 sworn police officers in the department, Mitchell said, and it’s uncertain how many police officers have received one or both vaccine doses. Other officers choose to receive the vaccines through their doctors or pharmacies, and because of the confidential nature of medical records, employees are not required to report medical treatment they receive to the department, this includes vaccines, Mitchell said.

“Local governments and healthcare organizations all across the nation are experiencing similar responses from their employees with regard to the vaccinations. Personal health is a sensitive subject and is different for every individual. The City of Fort Smith recognizes this and has done its best to provide access to those employees wanting the vaccine,” said Shari Cooper, public relations and communications manager for the city.

The city has provided source information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about the vaccine to the city’s first responders, so they can make the choice that is best for them, Cooper said. The city’s first responders also employ proactive decontamination methods using hypochlorous acid, which not only has been approved by the CDC, but also has proven to be safe for employees and effective in killing the virus, she added.

“Because when the pandemic started, it was politicized, every person has basically chosen sides. Nothing I can say is going to change their mind,” said Dr. Dr. Bryan Clardy, a physician with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Fort Smith, vice-chief of staff for Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Sebastian County Medical Officer. “But I think it’s smart to do it.”

Arkansas’ numbers of those positive with the COVID virus have improved over the past month. The number has improved over the past month. Tuesday (March 2) the Arkansas Department of Health reported 4,254 active cases, an increase of 12 from Monday (March 1). That brings the total active and probable cases in Arkansas since March 2020 to 322,949 (up 446 from Monday). Hospitalizations were reported at 416, down 25 from Monday, and well below the record of 1,371 on Jan. 11. Total deaths are 5,254, up four from Monday.

“As the numbers drop, the number of people choosing to get the vaccine will probably drop even though it’s the number of people getting the vaccine that is causing the number of cases to drop,” Clardy said.

He said the point of the vaccine is three fold: Preserve the workforce; Stop quarantines; and Reduce deaths and hospitalizations.

On that front, the vaccine is working. Baptist Health-Fort Smith had been able to reduce the amount of space dedicated to COVID patients in the last few weeks because there are not as many needing hospitalization, Clardy said. On Wednesday (March 3), there were 27 COVID patients in Fort Smith’s two hospitals with 14 in the intensive care units.

This vaccine has a 100% success rate in keeping someone who has contracted the virus after being vaccinated out of the hospital or dying, Clardy said. It has a 95% success rate in keeping a vaccinated person from getting the virus. Clardy said he knows there are people with concerns over the vaccines because they were developed and approved so quickly, but he says there is no need for that concern.

“It’s kind of like landing people on the moon to get people vaccinated this quickly. It’s incredible,” Clardy said.

Because he knows there are concerns from many Fort Smith City Director George Catsavis said he does not believe any first responders should be pressured to get the vaccine.

“This should be an individual decision and not a mandate by the city,” he said.

Director Neal Martin agreed, saying the city’s role needs to be to make the vaccine available and to make sure to communicate and offer vaccine clinics when possible.

“But we have to let people decide for themselves whether they want it or not,” he said.

Some businesses offer incentives to encourage employees to get the vaccinations. Dollar General has offered employees four hours of pay to get the vaccine. Aldi is giving its worker two hours of pay for each dose they receive. Kroger recently announced a $100 bonus to employees who could show proof they got the vaccine. Target is giving employees up to four hour of pay for the time they spend getting the vaccine.

Director Lavon Morton said he didn’t know if the city could do anything similar because unlike a private company, the city’s funding comes from taxpayers. Incentives would have to come from taxpayer money and are completely different from incentives paid by a private business.

“This is something I do plan to try to gather more information for further consideration. I know people who have died or become extremely ill from COVID. Unless someone has a history of allergic reactions to vaccines, it is hard to understand someone not getting a vaccine to protect family, friends, coworkers, the public and oneself,” Morton said.

Director Jarred Rego said he is surprised to see the report indicating that over half of the city’s firefighters declined to receive the vaccine and he will discuss possible incentives with city administration.

“I strongly believe that people should receive a vaccine dose as it is available to them. Everything points to the vaccines being safe and extremely effective. The more people who vaccinate, the sooner we will be able to defeat COVID and resume the fullness and richness of life,” Rego said.

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