When West Metro Fire Rescue Lt. Mike Binney rolled up his sleeve in October, he was one of the first people in the Denver area to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
Binney and three other firefighters from his crew volunteered for a Moderna vaccination trial, though he didn’t learn until January that he received the vaccine and not a placebo. He said he signed up for the trial to help advance the quest for a vaccine, to make sure he didn’t bring the coronavirus home to his toddler and pregnant wife, and to minimize the chance he spreads the disease to the people he’s helping.
“I think that’s important to consider — we’re doing it for other people,” Binney said of first responders and health care workers.
But it’s impossible to know how many of Binney’s fellow first responders across the Denver area have been vaccinated because few agencies are keeping track.
Police officers, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and correctional workers have been eligible to receive the vaccine since late December, when the state made vaccinations available to those occupations. But only a handful of public safety agencies know how many of their employees have gotten the shots.
“It is very disappointing that this is not something that we’re tracking,” said Glen Mays, chair of the Department of Health Systems, Management & Policy at the Colorado School of Public Health. “It’s a high-priority area. First-responder safety and protection is a critical element of the emergency preparedness plans that are put in place at every level of government.”
Knowing vaccination rates would help agencies plan for disaster, evaluate their risk of having an outbreak and could shape their operations to mitigate the risk of COVID-19, Mays said. Accurate data would also help people understand how effective Colorado’s vaccine rollout has been among one of the first populations it has been available to, he said.
“It can tell us important things about vulnerabilities in our critical infrastructure and support,” Mays said. “If we know we have certain segments of the first-responder population with low levels of vaccinations, those are capacities that could be taken out. Those are points of vulnerability that we need to pay attention to.”
None of the 10 largest law enforcement agencies in the state can say how many of their employees have been vaccinated. Most agencies said they were not tracking vaccinations because the shots are not mandatory and they wanted to respect employees’ privacy.
The agencies are the Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Lakewood and Thornton police departments as well as the Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, El Paso and Douglas counties sheriffs’ offices. Combined, the 10 agencies employ approximately 6,200 sworn officers that respond to reports of crimes, medical needs and other emergencies. Sheriff’s deputies also run the county jails, many of which have been sites of major COVID-19 outbreaks.
“We do not keep those records since that is considered personal health information and we are not permitted to do so,” Aurora police spokesman Matthew Longshore said.
It is generally legal for employers to ask their workers if they’ve been vaccinated, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employers can also mandate staff members get vaccinated, though few have opted to do so.
Denver officials said they are not tracking vaccinations by department but they do know that 3,128 of the 4,549 city employees who are eligible had received their first dose as of Feb. 2 — a rate of about 69%. About 80% of those eligible for the shot are police, fire or sheriff employees.
The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office has been tracking how many of its employees have signed up to receive the vaccine, but doesn’t know how many have been inoculated. Of the 850 staff members eligible, 450 have signed up, spokesman Deputy John Bartmann said. The agency has asked employees to turn in records showing they have received both shots, but is not requiring it. So far, 15 people have turned in vaccine cards and others are still waiting for appointments, Bartmann said.
Fire departments, too, are inconsistent in whether they are tracking vaccinations. Neither Denver nor Aurora are tracking fire department employees’ vaccinations. But West Metro Fire Rescue has asked employees to turn in their vaccination cards after receiving the second shot. Of the 424 employees eligible, 198 have received both doses, spokeswoman Rhonda Scholting said. Many others have received at least one shot or are planning to be vaccinated, she said.
“We’re encouraging people to do it, but it’s not mandatory right now,” Scholting said. “It’s strongly urged.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is also not tracking how many employees of each first responder agency have been vaccinated nor how many first responders in each county are inoculated. The department estimates that 150,300 of the 167,000 moderate-risk health care workers, first responders and correctional officers eligible for vaccinations have received at least one shot.
But those numbers are rough estimates and “are not intended to be definitive,” said Brian Spencer with the Colorado State Joint Information Center.
State health officials know how many people 70 and older there are living in Colorado as well as the population of the state’s long-term care facilities — two of the groups also being vaccinated in the early phase of the state’s rollout. (Health officials announced Wednesday that 50% of Coloradans 70 or older now have been inoculated.)
But they’ve had to calculate the number of eligible medical professionals and first responders by using 2018 occupation data, resulting in an estimate of 41,240 police, paramedics, detectives, correctional officers, sheriff’s deputies and funeral service providers in the state.
The state could not provide the number of vaccines given specifically to first responders.
At least one state agency whose employees are eligible for vaccinations under the current phase is tracking how many have chosen to get the shot and publishing the data online. As of Feb. 1, at least 2,689 Department of Corrections staff members had received at least one dose, department spokeswoman Annie Skinner said. Vaccines have also been administered to 260 of the 573 inmates over the age of 65 who are currently eligible for the vaccine and more are being vaccinated as possible.
“Of the entire DOC workforce, we have already vaccinated nearly 40% of the staff, and continue to make more progress every day,” Skinner said. “Our staff members who are choosing to get vaccinated are protecting the health and safety of individuals who are in our prisons or on parole, their fellow staff members, their family members at home, and their broader community.”
Other police and fire agencies across the country are tracking how many employees are getting vaccinated and the data show a wide variety of willingness to do so.
Sixty percent of EMS workers in one Ohio county declined to be vaccinated, though one fire department in the same county reported 90% of its eligible personnel signed up for the shot. The chief of the Los Angeles fire department has resorted to offering cash prizes to fire stations if all their employees get vaccinated. About 55% of the department’s 3,347 firefighters were inoculated, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Binney, the West Metro Fire Rescue lieutenant, said many first responders are signing up for vaccines because they recognize the importance of protecting themselves and those they serve, but said that there will always be a few people who don’t trust the vaccine and can become the loudest voice that “takes up the oxygen in the room.”
“A lot of districts may have trouble just because it has become politicized, unfortunately,” Binney said.
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