Sam Donahue didn’t feel the needle prick as the nurse perched next to him, rubbed something cold on his skin and injected the first half of a COVID-19 vaccine into his arm.
For Donahue, a South Burlington firefighter and EMT, the vaccine won’t change how he helps people, but it adds a sense of security, like an internal shield underneath his PPE.
“It feels like any other flu shot,” said Fire Chief Terry Francis, who also proudly submitted his arm for the shot.
As of Monday, 87 percent of South Burlington firefighters received part one of their COVID-19 vaccine.
Francis said the vaccine, which is voluntary due to its emergency authorization, was met with little hesitancy from his department.
“The vast majority have been excited. We need to protect ourselves, our families, our patients,” he said. “It runs the gamut. Some members said, ‘Absolutely, yes, can I get it yesterday,’ and some have their hesitancies. Some have religious objections to it, which is their right ... I think people have the right to say no.”
In mid-December, two coronavirus vaccines received emergency authorization use by the Food and Drug Administration. The VT Department of Health soon rolled out a strategy for inoculation which arranges people by risk priority. Phase 1A — what we’re currently simmering in — includes health care workers and residents in long-term care facilities.
While some folks have expressed concern because of how fast the vaccines were developed — a process which can take years, even decades, in non-pandemic times — the FDA stated that both approved vaccines undergo rigorous testing, in multiple stages of development. The speed of development can be attributed the government’s combined resources and efforts towards creating a vaccine, as well as the streamlining of manufacturing and distribution, usually slowed down by bureaucratic tape.
According to the FDA, tens of thousands of people participated in clinical trials for both COVID-19 vaccines as one of many steps taken before the agency greenlit emergency approval.
Donahue has served in the South Burlington Fire Department as a firefighter and Advanced-EMT for almost two years. While he’s read and heard about some apprehension around the vaccine, he feels confident.
“It’s modern medicine. It’s science, we know it works,” Donahue said. “I would recommend a vaccine, but I wouldn’t push it. You have your own belief and reasoning.”
He seems more focused on how to keep others safe — his family, patients, coworkers and others — than on his own fears of contracting the virus.
“I love nothing more than helping other people; that’s my whole goal in doing this job,” said Donahue. “When you can provide them with care, from an emergency medical standpoint, that could potentially save lives. Being trained in medical and fire, we’re able to show up all trained to work together and take a bad situation and make it better.”
Francis and his crew believe as many as seven firefighters may have had COVID-19 back in early January and February of last year, before the national pandemic set in and testing became more available.
“We had something in here which was like the worst flu some members ever had,” Francis recalled.
Since Governor Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in March, the department has experienced a few more scares. One exposure by someone in a member’s home pod forced a whole shift to quarantine and the next shift to fill in last minute. But not all fire departments in Vermont employ career firefighters or have the staff to fill in — a vast majority use volunteer members who work regular jobs in addition to their fire duties.
That’s just one more reason Francis hopes all of his firefighters choose to receive the vaccine.
“We need to protect ourselves, our families and our patients,” he said. “This virus is real and it will kill you.”
Following the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Vermont saw a spike in cases, likely from increased holiday travel and delayed testing. As of Monday, 7,873 people in Vermont reported having COVID-19, with 78 new cases.
Francis cautions people to beware of “COVID fatigue.” Even though vaccines are within grasp for the general population, he urged folks to continue wearing masks and social distancing.
“The citizens of Vermont have done a fantastic job of taking this seriously and we need to keep doing that for the next several months. Don’t let your guard down,” said Francis. “The holiday season is about having a full table. The goal for this year is to make sure the table is full next year.”
According to the “Vaccine Dashboard” posted on the VT Department of Health’s website, 11,200 people have received a COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday. In Chittenden County, that includes 2,472 people. No Vermonter has received their second shot yet, which is separated by up to a month depending on the vaccine and would complete the treatment.