COVID infections soar in Georgia county fire, EMS and police personnel

Officials are using American Rescue Plan funds to pay a $250 vaccination incentive for full-time EMS employees


By Nancy Guan
Savannah Morning News, Ga.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — As COVID-19 infections surge within the community, the virus is spreading to local police, emergency responders and firefighters as well, compelling local agencies to explore ways to increase staff vaccination rates.

The recent outbreak is keeping dozens of Savannah-area first-responders out of work, either because they are infected with COVID-19 or were in close contact with others who have the disease, forcing them into quarantine.

Chuck Kearns, CEO, Chatham Emergency Services, shown here in December, 2020 says about have of the department's employees were vaccinated as of July, 2021.
Chuck Kearns, CEO, Chatham Emergency Services, shown here in December, 2020 says about have of the department's employees were vaccinated as of July, 2021. (Chatham Emergency Services / Facebook)

Savannah Fire and Savannah Police were down 11 and 10 staffers respectively last week due to COVID-19. The Chatham County Police Department had eight at home and Chatham Emergency Services, which provides countywide ambulance service as well as fire protection to the unincorporated areas, was down six personnel members.

The rise in cases comes after those agencies went months with zero cases prior to the delta variant-driven surge.

CCPD, CEMS, Savannah Fire and SPD have not reported any COVID-related fatalities.

The uptick corresponds with the growth in the transmission rate among the local population. Chatham County is seeing record numbers in positive daily cases and community transmission, according to Coastal Health District data.

The seven-day rolling average of new positive cases for the county as of Aug. 30 is about 252.

"Obviously, I'd love to see zero (cases), but based on what they (police) do, I'm not surprised by that number, particularly given what's going on in our community," said Chatham County Manager Lee Smith.

The rise in cases among first-responders also mirrors what health officials have seen from the overall population in terms of vaccination rates.

About half of Savannah Police and Chatham Emergency Services are vaccinated, according to their respective spokespeople, and 44% of the Savannah Fire Department personnel are vaccinated.

The Chatham police, which follows county guidelines, does not mandate employees to disclose vaccine status. However, CCPD spokesperson Betsy Nolen said that about 44% of employees asked to schedule their first vaccine appointment in January when first responders were given the option.

"Right now we're researching what is our legal standing to require documentation of vaccinations," said Smith.

Along with that research, Smith said the county attorney's office is also looking at the legality of mandating vaccinations.

The City of Savannah is exploring another approach: Offering incentives. Savannah City Council last week passed a resolution for the city manager to work with the county, Savannah-Chatham County Public School System board and Chatham Area Transit on an incentive program to get more employees vaccinated.

Mayor Van Johnson mentioned using American Rescue Plan Act funds for the potential program. The city already awards eight hours of leave to employees who show proof of vaccination.

Chatham Emergency Services initiated an incentive program last week. The agency's CEO, Chuck Kearns, said full-time and part-time employees who have worked with CES since July 1 who show proof of full vaccination will receive $250 and $100, respectively.

Some employees have already gotten their first shot as a result of the incentive, said Kearns.

According to Kearns, about half of the 420 CEMS employees were vaccinated as of July.

"We went a couple of months prior to the current surge with nobody in quarantine," said Kearns. "I honestly thought we had turned the corner."

Kearns said CES continues to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Although the organization isn't experiencing a strain yet due to employees being out with COVID-19, Kearns said they have a plan in place if there is a personnel shortage.

"If we had to cut back, we'd be able to cut back on some things to focus our resources on responding to emergencies," said Kearns, such as reducing non-emergency inter-facility transfers.

The surge among first-responders comes as Savannah's three hospitals are seeing more COVID-19 patients than at any point during the pandemic. As the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 patients are reported to be unvaccinated, local government officials and medical professionals are urging the community to get vaccinated, especially those who interact with the public daily, such as first-responders.

About 52% of Chatham County residents have had their first dose and 45% are fully vaccinated.

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(c)2021 the Savannah Morning News (Savannah, Ga.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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