Pierce County firefighters concerned over staffing shortages due to vaccine mandate

It’s a position Tacoma firefighter-paramedic Alexander McNealley never thought he’d be in.

"It took me five years to get my job and I’m going to turn it down because you're going to make me do something," he said.

McNealley says he’s chosen not to get the vaccine because he feels it was rushed and feels safe enough using the department’s rigorous safety protocols and PPE.

"I totally understand why people want to and I totally understand why people don't want to and that’s what makes this country great, we're supposed to have freedom of choice and when that gets taken away it feels very very wrong." 

McNealley says when he found out about the mandate he says he contemplated getting it so he could keep his job, but ultimately decided he doesn’t want to be forced into it.

"If Jay doesn’t change his mind and it’s vaccinate or terminate and I can't make it under medical exemption then I’d have to go seek employment elsewhere," he said.

RELATED: COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise in Washington

Allyson Hinzman, president of the union that represents 412 Tacoma firefighter-paramedics says a survey showed 100 members do not want to get vaccinated.

"Right now we're looking at an upwards of 30% of the department being impacted by the mandate…whether or not you’re vaccinated, on October 19th any loss of members is going to impact the body as a whole because that workload will need to be picked up-and what does that look like? What does that look like for our community? Our response times? Services available? The larger picture here I don’t think was considered when this mandate first came out," says Hinzman.    

Hinzman says Tacoma Fire’s workload is already overwhelming due to brush fires and increased medical calls due to COVID. And she says it’s not just Tacoma Fire facing this issue: "Speaking with local leaders in Pierce County we're all looking at a 30% impact to the county which is a huge number."

"Our department is big enough that I don't think we'll see a mass exodus that will affect our ability to operate, but I don't believe that’s true for every department," says Chief Jim Sharp of West Pierce Fire and Rescue. 

RELATED: Hospitals overwhelmed, health care workers burned out as COVID rages on

Chief Sharp says 70% of his department is already vaccinated. But for the 30% that isn’t: "it is very unfortunate that our employees have to make a pretty substantial career decision in a pretty short amount of time and it was really kind of unanticipated."

The governor’s mandate does allow for a religious and medical exemption. However, Hinzman says the departments haven’t been given any guidance so they’re not sure what will qualify. Hinzman says she’s written to the governor’s office asking them to make exceptions to the vaccine mandate, such as allowing employees who wish to not get the vaccine to partake in regular testing.

A statement from governor Inslee’s reads:

"We recognize that ensuring staffing continuity is critical in certain sectors. Without full vaccination of the workforce, these settings are facing a different staffing challenge as a result of this pandemic – workers are missing shifts in incredibly high numbers due to exposures and infections. Employees are losing their lives from COVID-19 following work-based exposures. We deeply considered requests for a test-out option, listened to stakeholders, engaged local leaders, and ultimately determined it is infeasible and ineffective to address the crisis at hand. Vaccines are the safest and most effective tool to make sure these workers and the communities they live in and serve are protected from the virus."


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