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Whatcom County fire chief getting stiff pushback on COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Whatcom County Fire District 7 is responding to 25% more calls related to mental illness or other issues and now faces a potential staffing shortage.

WHATCOM COUNTY, Wash. — Firefighters across the state are pushing back on vaccine mandates.

Some appear willing to sacrifice their jobs for their beliefs, leaving fire officials fearful of a potential mass exodus.

"We managed the pandemic all last year without the need for vaccination," said Whatcom County Fire District 7 Chief Larry Hoffman.

Healthcare workers across the state were given an October 18 deadline to be fully vaccinated or lose their jobs.

Hoffman is vaccinated and believes everyone should have the choice.

Hoffman is getting stiff pushback to the state's health care worker vaccination mandate from about 25% of his crew. That works out to about 35 people who could soon stop serving the community.

"It could be the big fire, or a heart attack, or it could be a COVID patient. If I've got twenty-five percent of my workforce reduced, it's gonna take longer, and that's a problem," Hoffman said of response times.

Hoffman said Whatcom County Fire District 7 is responding now to 25% more calls related to mental illness or other issues that are no longer being taken by police because of new reform laws. Police agencies have argued that the new laws that went into effect in July limit how and when officers can respond to certain calls. Some police leaders have said the new laws could lead to an increase in crime due to changes pertaining to use-of-force tactics.

"These aren't simple calls. They can take a long time," Hoffman said. "We're gonna be in a lot of trouble if I lose those people after this."

There are no known cases in Whatcom County where there was COVID-19 transmission between a firefighter and a patient, or the other way around, according to health officials. Hoffman believes that is mainly because all first responders are fully outfitted with personal protective equipment.

"We listened to the science," the 35-year fire department veteran said. "We used our PPE and we were successful."

The science appears to back him up.

Research from the University of Washington shows the risk of first responders contracting COVID-19 from infected patients is extremely low. The study of 1,592 King County EMS providers caring for 946 different COVID-19 patients that resulted in 3,710 encounters in which a first responder cared for an infected patient between mid-February and July 2020. Of those 1,592 EMS providers, one tested positive for COVID-19 within two to 14 days after encountering a patient.

"Emergency care in general, and specifically when performing aerosol-generating procedures, can be delivered safely to patients as long as personal protective gear is properly deployed," said Dr. Thomas Rea, who led the research project.

The study was conducted before the more contagious delta variant took hold of America and prior to vaccinations being available.

"While provider vaccination might further reduce patient-provider transmission risk, the delta variant could increase risk, as it is more contagious. The balance of these two new factors is uncertain in this setting and provides impetus to continue to evaluate occupational risk," Rea said.

Chief Hoffman hopes this new science will save lives, jobs and stave off a potential first responder exodus.

"I would like to see the folks in Olympia work hard to realize there are alternatives that are just as safe," Hoffman said.

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