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Mass. Irons Out First Responder Vaccination Plan

Police, firefighters and EMTs are signing up for COVID-19 vaccination appointments scheduled to begin on Jan. 11. The Baker administration ironed out some of the final details during a call Thursday with union leaders, chiefs and private ambulance companies. First responders are the third high priority vaccine group in Massachusetts after front-line health care workers and the staff and residents of long-term care facilities.

The Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts had raised concerns about the state’s plan for its more than 12,000 members but union president Richard MacKinnon now says he’s “cautiously optimistic” it will work.

The Baker administration did not respond to a request for comment after the meeting.

An earlier version of vaccination options for first responders did not include allowing paramedics and EMTs to administer vaccines to this group. But Cataldo Ambulance Vice President Daniel Hoffenberg says the Baker administration has agreed that private ambulance companies can vaccinate their own staff as long as they are trained, have the needed freezer space and can make use of the minimum Moderna delivery: 200 doses.

The vast majority of first responders are expected to receive vaccines from their local health department or from one of about five large state-run sites that might include Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium and the Big E fairgrounds. Smaller cities and towns have formed roughly 50 groups so they can receive, store and distribute the Moderna vaccine together.

"In many communities, there’s a varying degree of experience with it [vaccinations],” says Sigalle Reiss, president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association and the public health director in Norwood. “So some communities will just run on their own, others we’ll work together.”

Norwood, for example, plans to collaborate with nine other communities that include 1,000 first responders in total. Some nurses plan to set clinics within police and fire stations as they do with flu vaccines.

State police say they expect to stagger vaccinations at regional facilities to avoid being short-staffed if vaccine recipients experience mild symptoms. Headaches, fevers and fatigue are more common after the second dose.

Police leaders say they still have questions about whether support staff inside stations will be considered first responders but were relieved to learn that 911 operators can be offered the vaccine along with officers on the streets. The main question now may be how many first responders want to be vaccinated.

Falmouth Chief of Police Edward Dunne says only 20 of 58 staff in his department have signed up to get vaccinated.

“And it seems to be the same across the state,” says Dunne, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “People are just doing their due diligence, trying to get as much information about how the vaccine reacts. What I’ve told my staff is, speak to your physician.”

Dunne says he’s already booked his first shot and feels confident that getting vaccinated is much less risky than remaining vulnerable to COVID-19.

James Machado, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Association, says interest in the coronavirus vaccine is high in some departments and he thinks more officers will get the shots once they see that doing so is safe. The vaccine roll-out may be slow for first responders but he says he’s pleased, overall, with the state’s plan.

“You can see the thought that’s gone into it and it changes slightly every day,” Machado says, “but for the most part it’s pretty well decided.”

A few first responders have already received their first dose. Cheryl Bartlett, CEO at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, says she had extra doses after vaccinating all of the direct COVID-19 staff who wanted the shots.

“I felt strongly that rather than sit and wait for people to change their minds about getting vaccinated, that those who are truly the first response, going into situations that are unpredictable such as ambulance EMS professionals, firefighters and police, should be vaccinated,” Bartlett said in an email.

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Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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