San Diego's fire chief got his COVID-19 vaccine on New Year's Eve in the hopes of setting an example for the city’s 940-plus sworn firefighters.
NBC 7 Investigates has learned a surprising number of the men and women who are often the first to treat patients with the virus are choosing not to vaccinate against it.
The FDA authorized both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as safe and effective, but stopped short of approval, since neither company yet has enough long-term data. And that gives some firefighters pause.
San Diego Fire-Rescue officials said that 167 of the department's 943 sworn firefighters turned down the vaccine. That means more than 17%, or nearly 1 in 5 firefighters, chose not to get the coronavirus vaccine.
“I hope our leaders take note of this,” Jesse Conner, president of the San Diego City Firefighters IAFF Local 145, told NBC 7.
Conner said that everyone should pay attention to how many firefighters are saying no to the vaccine -- and why -- because this is likely a test drive of what will happen when the vaccine is rolled out to the general population.
“It shows, just because there is widespread availability of the vaccine, It doesn’t mean everyone is going to want it,” Conner said.
San Diego Fire-Rescue is far from alone. Other fire departments across the state are seeing even higher refusal rates, some as high as 40%.
“Seventeen percent is actually pretty good right now, knowing that that number is only going to get better,” San Diego Fire-Rescue chief Colin Stowell told NBC 7 Monday during a phone interview.
Stowell said that he actually expected higher refusal rates, which is why he says the department made getting the shot as easy as possible.
“We actually scheduled everyone for it,” Stowell said. “They had to willfully opt out.”
Conner said there are myriad reasons as to why some firefighters opted out, but by far the most common reason is concerns regarding safety, which he said proves the need for more education about how the shot works.
“The biggest threat [if more firefighters don’t get the vaccine] is the firefighters’ families,” Conner said. “And that to me is just intolerable.”
As of Monday morning, 101 sworn San Diego firefighters have tested positive for coronavirus. Twenty-two lifeguards and 20 nonsworn fire department workers -- mostly dispatchers -- have also tested positive.
The city of San Diego does not require its employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, nor does San Diego Fire-Rescue require firefighters to get a flu vaccine. However, if firefighters did not get a flu vaccine, they are required to wear a mask when treating or working near flu patients.
Despite the refusal rates, union president Conner said most firefighters not only want to get the vaccine, roughly 60 firefighters are helping vaccinate others in San Diego. And that’s a number he is glad is going up.