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Anne Arundel first responders were among the first eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Not all of them have gotten it.

Anne Arundel County first responders have been key to vaccinating broad swaths of eligible groups against the coronavirus, from early clinics for their own to the Annapolis mass vaccination site now open to everyone age 16 and older.

But despite their frontline status, not every worker has made the choice to get vaccinated, according to data provided by the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Police and Fire departments.

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About 70% of Anne Arundel County Police Department employees, including officers and non-sworn workers, have received the vaccine, according to a March 4 survey the department sent to all members. A separate Anne Arundel County Fire Department survey, sent on Jan. 27, resulted in similar numbers, with 73% indicating they’d gotten their coronavirus vaccine.

Both datasets are imperfect. Of the more than 2,400 career and volunteer firefighters working with the county department, only 866 responded to the survey. Of the 980 police officers and non-sworn employees working for the county police, only 686 responded.

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“There wasn’t a lot of hesitation based on ‘I know I’m a medical provider, but I’m just not comfortable,’” said Fire Chief Trisha Wolford. “It was educated reasoning.”

Wolford’s department has set up a dedicated email address and hosted question and answer sessions to address any concerns employees have about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are just a very small microcosm of the greater Anne Arundel community,” Wolford said. “Firefighters are still just the regular neighbor, that person at the grocery store.”

And additional police officers and firefighters have been vaccinated in the weeks since the surveys went out, officials said.

State and local health departments identified first responders as more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 early on and prioritized them for early vaccinations. One Centers for Disease Control study of first responders in New York City found emergency medical technicians and paramedics were at an even higher risk than their colleagues because they respond to calls for medical assistance to potential COVID-19 patients.

The Anne Arundel County and Annapolis departments spent more than $1 million compensating police and fire personnel who filed for emergency administrative or sick leave after contracting or being exposed to COVID-19, much of it subsidized by the CARES Act. The Anne Arundel County Fire Department spent the most, with 403 of 927 paid employees requesting emergency leave.

Still, officers and firefighters are like other members of the community and have many of the same considerations and concerns that the general public has expressed when considering taking the vaccine, officials said.

A monthly Kaiser Family Foundation survey has found an increasing number of people are interested in getting vaccinated, but about 20% either reject the COVID-19 vaccine outright or would only take it if required. That number is higher among non-healthcare essential workers, 32% of whom said they wouldn’t get vaccinated or would only get it if required.

In Anne Arundel County, a poll of residents found about 20% don’t want the vaccine.

Some members of the Anne Arundel Fire Department live in different states and either work or volunteer for departments in their hometowns, Wolford said, so they had been vaccinated in other clinics but filled out the survey incorrectly because they hadn’t been vaccinated in the county. Others had waited because of planned pregnancy or underlying health conditions.

Of the 232 who responded to the county fire department survey saying they didn’t receive the vaccine, 45 worried about side effects, 43 did not have enough information about the vaccines available at the time, 34 didn’t have time available on the days it was offered and five didn’t believe in vaccines. The remaining respondents didn’t give a reason or wrote one in.

Some county firefighters were “a little hesitant at first,” said Joe Addivinola, IAFF Local 1563 president, “but now it’s come full circle. They’ve done their research by now, and most of them want to get it. There are a couple people that are hesitant, but you’re going to have that when you have 900 people in a department.”

The county Police Department did not provide a copy of the internal survey, but spokesman Sgt. Kam Cooke said the agency encourages members to become vaccinated.

“However, we respect and support individual decisions not to do so.”

Annapolis departments have tracked slightly higher uptake among police and fire personnel. Eighty-eight percent of Annapolis Police Department officers and employees and 75% of Annapolis firefighters, paramedics and administrative employees have been vaccinated.

John Wardell, a career Annapolis firefighter and president of the IAFF Local 1926, said there are some members with uncertainty, but the department has been supportive overall of vaccinations and continues to advertise clinics.

“We might have a member who for religious beliefs, they don’t want to get it, or they’re a little unsure,” Wardell said. “There’s never once been any fear of retribution or negative connotation. It’s just this is available.”

The vaccine is voluntary in all four departments. Union officers hope it stays that way, they said.

“I chose that we would not be mandating it,” Wolford said. “Everybody at their core is an individual; they’re not just a firefighter. They deserve an individual decision in their health.”

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