Some Orange County firefighters oppose vaccine mandate


ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Negotiations continued Tuesday between union representatives for Orange County Fire Rescue and the county’s human resources department, which currently mandates all county employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless granted a religious or medical exemption.

What You Need To Know

  • All Orange County public employees must get at least one COVID vaccine shot by Sept. 30
  • County employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 31
  • Some firefighters are objecting to the COVID vaccine requirement
  • Employees may request a medical or religious accommodation from the county

About 25 firefighters who oppose the vaccine mandate attended the meeting to voice their concerns.

“I’m here today to fight for my brothers and sisters that are about to lose their jobs,” said Jason Wheat, a firefighter with the county for 16 years, during Tuesday’s meeting at the Orange County Convention Center.

“We are definitely not anti-vaccine. If you want to take the vaccine, we encourage firefighters to take it, ”Wheat said. “We just want to be able to have an informed decision… to choose for ourselves.”

Wheat, a member of a Florida-based group called Operation Freedom of Choice, said for the last year and a half, the county’s firefighters have battled COVID-19 successfully, with zero fatalities as a result of the virus. Meanwhile, four firefighters have committed suicide in the past year because of post-traumatic stress disorder, Wheat said.

“This is causing adverse stress on the firefighter department,” Wheat said. “It’s causing people to lose sleep… I’ve had firefighters call me crying [about] whether or not they’re going to lose their jobs. ”

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings announced a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for county employees late last month, as infection rates soared to record-setting highs. A local state of emergency is currently in effect for the county until at least Sept. 1.

Medical experts say while vaccination doesn’t completely prevent contraction of the coronavirus, it greatly reduces risk of contraction, and also greatly diminishes short and long-term effects for those who do contract the virus. A recent study involving close to 2 million people in Israel found unvaccinated people who contract the virus are 266% more likely to develop myocarditis – a potentially serious type of heart inflammation – than vaccinated people.

Another increasingly big concern for medical experts is the long-term impacts of COVID-19, even for people who don’t develop symptoms after contracting it.

“We expect to see, in the years ahead, many people who have been infected with the disease – possibly not even knowing it because they’re asymptomatic – developing heart disease, kidney disease, lung disease and brain disease that will be there for the rest of their life, ”said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health, medicine and pharmacy at the University of South Florida.

Wolfson, who serves as senior associate dean for the university’s Morsani College of Medicine, said doctors are calling this kind of collateral damage “post-infection chronic syndrome” – a different, more serious phenomenon than the “long hauler” COVID-19 effects reported by many survivors of the virus.

“Even the people who have been asymptomatic or had mild symptoms, some of them we now learn have a possibility – probability, actually – of acquiring a new chronic disease they never had before in their life,” Wolfson said. “It will erupt at some point in the future because this virus attaches to those organs, and for some people, it waits and then it erupts later on.”

“That’s something everybody needs to worry about,” Wolfson added, pointing out that the delta variant is “a thousand times” more powerful and infectious than previous variants of the coronavirus.

Wolfson acknowledged the inherent difficulty in obtaining an ideal balance between personal choice and mandates designed to protect public health. But he said evidence shows, the benefits of being vaccinated against COVID-19 still greatly outweigh the cons – particularly for front-facing service personnel, like firefighters.

“Overcoming the personal prerogative is something that we as a community, we as a society, have to figure out a way to do without getting people… to dig their heels in,” Wolfson said.

For their part, firefighters and supporters who attended Tuesday’s meeting were clear in their opposition to a vaccine mandate, carrying signs with slogans like “I’m not a lab rat,” and “Forced medical procedures do not belong in a free society.”

“Just give us our freedom of choice,” Wheat said. “Let us choose whether or not we want to get the vaccine. … We want to keep our jobs because we love what we’re doing. ”

Addie Soto of the county’s human resources department said employees who don’t wish to get vaccinated may request a religious or medical accommodation, which the county will respond to in writing, regardless of whether or not that request is approved.

While the county has been trying to respond to accommodation requests within 24 hours of receiving them, a recent “inundation” of more than 200 requests in the past two days has slowed that timeframe, Soto said. As of Tuesday, the county had received a total of 398 accommodation requests from employees, including 66 from firefighters, Soto said.

Wheat said firefighters opposing the county’s mandate aren’t just fighting for themselves, but for the community members they serve.

“We want to continue to protect you guys and provide you the best service possible, and we cannot do that if we lose three or four hundred firefighters due to this mandated vaccine,” Wheat said.

In a written statement sent to Spectrum News on Tuesday, Orange County’s human services department said there are currently no other vaccine requirements for county firefighters.

“Additional impact bargaining sessions are in the process of being scheduled to make sure union members are clear on the Mayor’s directive,” the statement read in part. “With regard to current employee mask requirements, employees are required to wear masks while at work and working around others.”

While current infection rates are concerning, it’s still possible to mitigate the worst potential impacts of the delta variant, Wolfson said.

“We’re all in this together,” Wolfson said. “We’re on the verge, we think, of getting through this delta thing, as long as we don’t let too many people create a reservoir where that variant can morph into something even worse.”

Orange County employees currently have until Sept. 30 to receive either the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or the first dose of a two-shot vaccine. They’ll have until Oct. 31 to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


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