While local health officials have been urging the public and essential workers to get vaccinated, many of OC’s frontline safety staff have declined to get vaccinated for coronavirus, turning down shots at higher rates than other government workers and the general public.

With firefighters and sheriff’s deputies in close contact with the public during medical calls, arrests and jail stays, top county health officials say it’s crucial for them to get vaccinated to protect themselves and vulnerable community members.

“This is not something to take lightly. I need everybody to really consider the vaccine. And we need our workers, our essential workers, our heroes at the front line – to protect themselves so they can continue protecting the community,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the deputy county health officer, during a Friday conference call with reporters.

But six months into being eligible for vaccines, just 16 percent of OC Sheriff staff had self-reported getting vaccinated for COVID as of late June, the latest data officials have made available.

At the county’s largest firefighting agency, the OC Fire Authority, 53 percent of frontline workers have gotten the shots at the authority’s vaccination events, though the agency does not have figures for those who’ve gotten vaccinated elsewhere.

Both agencies say they’re taking other steps to protect the public. County CEO Frank Kim said sheriff staff in the jails and other healthcare settings are required to get tested weekly if they haven’t been vaccinated.

Fire Authority officials say their staff who are unvaccinated are not required to get tested, but that all staff wear protective gear known as PPE when interacting with the public.

Additionally, agency leaders say any staff who develop COVID symptoms are tested, and if they test positive they’re sent home and any close contacts are tested as well.

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Firefighters have declined the vaccine for several reasons, according to their union president, including being okay after being exposed to residents infected with Covid, and having natural immunity from getting COVID earlier in the pandemic.

“A lot of my members have had COVID. We worked on the frontlines dealing with sick people right off the bat without the vaccine,” said Todd Baldridge, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, in an interview with Voice of OC.

“I think there’s two groups out there. One group is, ‘I [worked] when it was bad, and didn’t have a vaccine and it’s fine.’ And the other group is, ‘I’ve had it, I’ve got the natural immunity to it, and why get the vaccine?’ ”

Asked about concerns in the community that frontline workers are at higher risk of accidentally spreading COVID if they’re unvaccinated, Baldridge said that’s not true.

“That’s a false narrative, because you can be vaccinated and spread it as well,” he added, noting he has a Master’s degree in public health.

“The ultimate thing is, how bad is this disaster for a 20 something-year-old strong, fit firefighter. And I think they’re willing to get the flu rather than get the vaccination, and I believe that’s their right.”

Yet the county’s deputy health officer says vaccinations significantly reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, adding that natural immunity fades with time and newer variants like omicron are more likely to break through.

“There’s so many times where people who have previously had the illness are getting re-infected,” Chinsio-Kwong said on Friday’s call, adding that she recently spoke with the family of an unvaccinated police officer who died from coronavirus.

“We need those people that think they have natural immunity to also get vaccinated. And we have heard and we have seen that getting a booster actually does protect you.”

Unvaccinated people are 6 times more likely to get infected with coronavirus, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Getting vaccinated means “reducing the risk of spreading to others,” she added.

The deputies’ union president and the five county supervisors didn’t return phone calls and text messages for comment about how the issue is playing out among public safety staff.

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Asked through his spokeswoman if he’s concerned about risks to staff and the public from unvaccinated staff interacting with the public, Sheriff Don Barnes responded that “Covid can be acquired anywhere in the community.”

“We have an important job to do that cannot be done remotely. I’m proud of our deputies who continue to show up every day and keep our community safe,” he added.

Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy’s office didn’t respond to the same question.

In an earlier statement, Fire Authority leaders said they do not require frontline staff to get COVID vaccinations, and are not required to get tested regularly if they opt not to get the shot.

But staff wear personal protective equipment to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, they noted.

“All personnel who respond on calls and make contact with a patient must wear PPE which protects both our personnel from the patient and the patient from our personnel,” said a statement from Capt. Greg Barta, spokesman for the Fire Authority.

The deputies and firefighters’ unions have opposed vaccination mandates, saying they stand with each employee’s right to make medical decisions for themselves.

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It’s a challenge to get up-to-date vaccination rates for the public safety workforces.

OC Sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the department does not have information on how many of their employees have self-reported being vaccinated for coronavirus.

She noted that data is collected by the county’s central human resources office, under CEO Frank Kim, though Kim’s office wouldn’t provide the figures in the two weeks after Voice of OC started requesting them in early December.

While other agencies report data on self-reported vaccinations, the Fire Authority’s statement said they do not have data on anyone vaccinated through means other than at the agency’s clinics.

Asked if the county faces higher liability risk from having large numbers of unvaccinated sheriff staff interacting with the public, Kim said the county is following all of the state’s health rules.

“The county is fully compliant with the Covid protocols established by the state for law enforcement employees,” Kim told Voice of OC via text message.

“As required, we either offer vaccination or test weekly when the State order requires.”

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The Sheriff Department had the lowest self-reported vaccination rate among county employees as of the latest available data from August.

It’s unclear how much that’s risen since, given the lack of data released by the county.

However, sheriff staff are by far the largest share of pandemic-related worker’s compensation costs the county has paid so far, according to county data obtained through a records request by Voice of OC.

Among the County of Orange workplaces with active COVID outbreaks this summer were the Sheriff’s Department central jail and headquarters complex in Santa Ana, according to county data.

Early in the pandemic, retired OC Fire Authority firefighter Ken Caley died from coronavirus at age 59. And in January, Garden Grove Police Lt. John Reynolds died from coronavirus complications, according to his department.

Coronavirus infections at work were the leading cause of death of American police officers last year as well as the first half of this year.

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Richard Carpiano, a public health scientist at UC Riverside who previously worked as an emergency medical technician, said it’s tragic to see so many first responders decline to get vaccinated.

“They’re crucial for the community so their health and safety needs to be paramount,” Carpiano said of firefighters and police.

“Their chance to get COVID is quite high, much higher than somebody who works from home … the chance for them to be passing along, to be what we would call a vector, is quite high as well,” he added.

“This is not just putting workers – firefighters, police and paramedics – at risk, this is also putting the community and their families too. At the end of the day these people go home.”

Voice of OC staff writer Spencer Custodio contributed reporting to this article.

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