Firefighters and police officers are among the first in line for the COVID-19 vaccine in Texas, but NBC 5 Investigates has learned that many first responders in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have chosen to not get vaccinated yet, even though they are considered high-risk because of their constant contact with the public.
Despite their status in group 1A, giving them priority access to COVID-19 vaccines, more than 50% of first responders have skipped their turn in line to get the vaccine at some local departments.
The reluctance is causing health officials to worry about the safety of first responders while also wondering if people on the front lines are skipping the vaccine, how do they convince the rest of the community to get it.
To get a better look at the number of first responders who have been vaccinated, NBC 5 Investigates asked local police and fire departments for their numbers.
- In Richardson, 50% of police officers and 68% of EMS staff have so far opted out of getting the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
- In Irving, about 60% of police have not been vaccinated against the virus yet.
- In Frisco, police report 63% of officers, dispatchers, and jailers are not vaccinated yet.
- In Allen, police told NBC 5 Investigates that 74% of officers have not received a first shot of the vaccine.
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Even the area's largest fire department, Dallas Fire-Rescue, said about 60% of employees were not vaccinated at the city's main vaccine location for first responders. More have been vaccinated through a local hospital, but the city is not sure exactly how many.
"Let's face it, they are our heroes, and to see them at risk like this, unnecessarily, really disturbs me," said Dr. Peter Hotez, one of the nation's leading infectious disease experts.
Hotez, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, was surprised when NBC 5 Investigates shared with him the data from the informal survey of departments.
Research Hotez has worked on in conjunction with researchers at Texas A&M suggests about 30% of Americans are hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but he did not expect first responders, who have seen many of their co-workers get sick, would skip the shots in such large numbers.
Want to Get on a Vaccine Waitlist?
As the state begins to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines for those in Phase 1A and 1B, county health departments have begun waitlists for those wish to be inoculated.
You can now register to recieve the vaccination in Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties. Links are below:
You do not need to be a resident of the county to register for a COVID-19 vaccine in that county -- registration is open to anyone in Texas. For those without internet access, Tarrant County is also taking registrations by phone at 817-248-6299. In Dallas County, call the DCHHS vaccine hotline at 1-855-IMMUNE9 (1-855-466-8639). In Denton County, call 940-349-2585.
For a more detailed breakdown of who is included in each priority group in Texas, see this page from the Texas DSHS.
"It's really alarming, the fact that they're still hesitant about getting vaccinations," Hotez said. "We clearly have to improve how we're communicating about the importance of vaccines."
Some fire and police departments told NBC 5 Investigates that it's difficult to pinpoint what is behind the resistance.
"You know, the range is so wide and varies. You know, it's a personal preference. To speculate one main reason would just be pure speculation," said Irving Police Department Spokesman Robert Reeves.
Reeves did get the COVID-19 vaccine but said some officers may be waiting to get the vaccine after recently having been infected with the virus while others may want to see how their co-workers tolerate the vaccine before getting it themselves.
"I wanted to make sure that I didn't take anything home to my family. I know other individuals that may not have kids or may be single. You know they may be doing that waiting game just to kind of see how it's affecting some folks," Reeves said.
NBC 5 Investigates did find five departments where most of the first responders did choose to receive the vaccine. The Dallas Police Department, Frisco Fire Department and Plano Police Department all report about 60% of their employees have been vaccinated. The Plano Fire Department reported 72% vaccinated so far.
NBC 5 Investigates
The Allen Fire Department, which hosts a vaccinating clinic, said at least 77% have opted to get the vaccine.
"The main thing is, is that we tried to provide reliable, accurate information from trusted sources as often as we could," said Allen Fire Chief Jon Boyd, who believes the information has been the key to convincing his staff to get the vaccine.
Boyd was an early supporter of the COVID-19 vaccine and even took part in the Moderna vaccine trial. He has since organized listening sessions where firefighters could hear from doctors and ask questions about the vaccine.
"It's OK to have concerns about the vaccine. But then again, also have plenty of opportunities for individuals to find information that was reliable and from trusted sources," Boyd said.
Some departments, like the Fort Worth Fire Department and Arlington Fire Department, the latter of which also runs a large-scale vaccination hub vaccinating nearly 10,000 people per week, told NBC 5 Investigates they don't have firm numbers on the number of employees who have received the vaccine.
Hotez said disinformation is driving much of the skepticism about the safety of the vaccine. He said if he could tell first responders one thing about the vaccine it would be this: "First of all, ignore the anti-vaccine messages. Get off the crummy Facebook sites and the social media chat sites. Those sites don't care about you and they don't care about your family."
With new, more contagious variants of the virus now circulating in Texas, Hotez said he believes it's more important than ever for people on the front lines, who are at such a high risk for contracting the virus, to be as protected as they can be from an infection.
"I'm really very worried about this situation because they are at tremendous risk are being exposed to that virus all the time. And this is the one thing that can really save their lives," Hotez said.
Dallas police said they believe information has also been a key to getting a higher number of their officers vaccinated against COVID-19. They told NBC 5 Investigates they have been constantly communicating with officers about the vaccine.
Hotez argued one of the biggest weaknesses of the national vaccine plan was a lack of a consistent communication strategy in the beginning. Operation Warp Speed was designed to develop and deliver vaccines quickly, but not to communicate solid medical information to groups that are skeptical about the safety of the vaccines being developed, Hotez said.
No departments NBC 5 Investigates spoke with said they plan to make the vaccine mandatory and they plan to leave it up to each individual to decide what is right for them. Some, like the city of Richardson, said they are encouraging people to follow the advice of health authorities and that vaccines are a proven method to prevent infection and protect people.