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South Kingstown paramedic Derek Machado prepares gear in a rescue truck on Jan. 19. He was among the South Kingstown Emergency Medical Services personnel to receive the COVID-19 vaccination last month.

The national debate over getting the COVID-19 vaccine has some South County emergency responders waiting to roll up their sleeves to get inoculated.

A survey by The Independent this week showed that both South Kingstown and North Kingstown police departments had about 50% of sworn personnel take up the offer to be vaccinated, while about 75% of eligible Narragansett officers got the shot.

Numbers also bounced around for emergency medical and fire service workers in all towns. What is clear, say town officials, is that more work lies ahead to ensure the highest number possible get the vaccine.

However, that effort is stymied, they said, due to several reasons that include individual choices to wait longer and health conditions of some workers. None of these three towns have any plan to even consider the possibility of a mandate, officials said.

“There won’t be a mandate in North Kingstown,” Town Manager Ralph Mollis asserted quickly when the question arose in a discussion. “We will not be taking away the rights, infringing on religious beliefs or tampering with underlying conditions of our personnel.”

As COVID vaccinations progress along a slow and bumpy roll out, logistical issues, vaccine availability and fears make that roll out even more difficult.

Meanwhile, local officials and union leaders say they have begun education efforts about the vaccine. It is aimed at those on the front lines of exposure that could spread to family members and the community.

For these towns there is also the self-interest to help prevent possibly long absences from duty and potential workers compensation costs.

Even though some emergency services members are not getting vaccinated, use of personal protection equipment and safety routines are still required for all emergency services personnel, even those getting the vaccine, officials said.


The Numbers

In addition to police, the numbers getting vaccinated also vary in each town for fire personnel and those in emergency medical services.

For instance, in North Kingstown about 75% of the combined fire and emergency medical service corps chose to have the vaccine while about 77% of EMS workers in South Kingstown were vaccinated.

In comparison, the number is about 60% for South Kingstown’s volunteer fire department and as well for Narragansett’s combined fire and EMS responders who serve in those dual capacities.

Town managers for all three towns said that general government employees, including those greeting the public in town hall, doing mandated inspections and working in various public works projects or tasks, also need opportunity to have vaccinations.

Solutions to that issue are also being discussed now as well as how to handle mass inoculations of the general public, officials said.

“We are discussing regionally, with others, and the state, but there’s no program in place and it could be a month or months away,” Mollis said.

He and Town Managers Robert Zarnetske of South Kingstown and James Tierney of Narragansett agree that as many people as possible should be vaccinated.

Mandates, though, are off the table right now and any required use needs legal review and would have to be part of any collective bargaining discussions, they added.

“It’s kind of a non-issue because we’ve been pursuing enhanced protections since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Zarnetske, adding that they wear PPE, and this self-protection is working well for emergency services workers and the public in his town.

Mollis said that further discussions will occur in North Kingstown about additional protective measures, but he doesn’t know if they will be necessary.

He, like the other officials, said that they are having collaborative discussions with the emergency services workers and their unions. Any decisions would be made through that process, they noted.


Vaccine Supply

There is also the issue of vaccine supply.

Even if more people wanted the vaccine, there are shortages in the state to fulfill that need, Mollis noted. Several emergency services workers in various towns are scheduled next week to get second doses of the vaccine.

Plans, however, for more first doses need further discussion with state officials, they said.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said that the biggest challenge facing Rhode Island’s vaccine program – like most other states throughout the country – is not receiving a lot of vaccine for the required two-dose shot in the arm.

The state has administered about 51,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The state is getting 14,000 first doses of vaccine a week. The state has a population of slightly over one million people.

Sergeant Michael Sousa, vice president of the South Kingstown chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said he thinks numbers will rise of those getting the vaccine as more officers recover from illness preventing the shot and decision by others who see over time it is safe.  

Officer Thomas Menec, president of North Kingstown police union chapter of the IBPO, said he knows of two officers who are waiting to see whether longer-term side effects develop from the shots.

Both said that their unions support educating officers about the choices so that the highest number possible get vaccinated. Town officials said they had various education and awareness efforts underway for their personnel.

The approaches, town managers said, vary from commanding officers having conversations with staff, website information and actual distribution of fact sheets with answers to commonly asked questions and detailed explanations from federal Centers for Disease Control materials.

Mollis said, “I am encouraging them to do it (get the vaccine) for three reasons: to protect themselves, for the benefit of the general public, and for the benefit and to protect their families.”

Bill Seymour is a freelance writer covering news and personality feature stories in Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. He can be reached at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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