South King Fire and Rescue Driver Engineer Ann Hoag is familiar with the white tents at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.
Along with dozens of other firefighters, she has spent long hours engulfed in protective gear, comforting patients as she provides nasal swabs through rolled-down vehicle windows at the county-run COVID-19 testing site.
The site serves as a test site for the public six days of the week, and on Sundays, the county testing site becomes a vaccination site for frontline workers.
After months of caring for patients with COVID-19, Hoag said it was a monumental first for both frontline workers involved in the vaccination — the South King Fire and Rescue member receiving her initial dose of the vaccine, and the nurse administering her very first dose of the vaccine.
“It felt like a bonding experience with her … it felt very historical,” said Hoag. She received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Jan. 11. After both injections, she had a sore arm and slight fatigue, but both mild symptoms were gone within a day.
South King County, and specifically the Federal Way area, has been hit hard by the pandemic with some of the highest amount of cases countywide. As of Jan. 13, Federal Way has seen 534 new positive cases at a rate of 15.2% in the past 14 days, and there have been 71 COVID-related deaths.
As of last week, South King Fire crews have seen more than 300 patients who tested positive for COVID-19. Due to the department’s safety guidelines and practices, none of the firefighters have contracted COVID-19 while providing patient care, according to the department.
As of Jan. 6, there have been 45 SKFR personnel vaccinated and more members are continually being scheduled for their doses, said Capt. Brad Chaney of South King Fire.
Due to early efforts by Seattle – King County Public Health and UW Medicine to help facilitate more vaccinations, Chaney estimates more than half of the department’s 134 members in group 1A will receive the vaccinations in the near future.
For the department, group 1A refers to all frontline personnel who respond on emergency calls and see patients.
“It was a little scary at first because it was an unknown,” Hoag said of the vaccine. “But the way I see it, firefighters are expected to run toward danger while everyone else is running away to set the example, and this is another way to do that.”
Hoag said it’s a blessing to be in the first wave and receive the vaccine when many others access the nation are in dire need or desire for the vaccine.
While a greater sense of safety may come once more of the population is vaccinated, Hoag said she does feel a sense of relief.
“I do feel more hope, like the burden is just a little bit lighter,” she said. “The world has felt really heavy for about a year now for everyone and just to have some of these big steps moving forward, it feels just a little bit lighter.”
Looking at their brothers and sisters in blue, 64 Federal Way Police Department employees have been vaccinated, said Cmdr. Kurt Schwan of FWPD.
The department was contacted and informed by a local medical clinic conducting COVID-19 vaccinations that there were numerous doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and the clinic was willing to provide them to the police department staff.
Not as many healthcare workers were opting to be vaccinated as the clinic had anticipated, so the available doses were provided to FWPD, Schwan said.
Department command consulted with King County Public Health, which “advised us to absolutely take advantage of the opportunity,” Schwan said. Several other law enforcement departments have also been offered the vaccine.
SKFR Battalion Chief and IAFF Local 2024 President Ryan Herrera, the union representing South King Fire members, said he scheduled his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as soon as it was made available to first responders.
Similar to Hoag, Herrera received his vaccination at the King County testing site in Federal Way. The process consisted of several checkpoints to collect and confirm information prior to receiving the dose, as well as a 15-minute evaluation period afterward to monitor possible adverse reactions.
Herrera said the only side effect was a typical sore arm, “which is a small price to pay to protect myself, my family, co-workers, or the community members we serve from this horrible disease.”
Treating residents of the Federal Way community with COVID-19 or related symptoms, the firefighters of Local 2024 place themselves in harm’s way when caring for patients in uncontrolled environments, Herrera said.
“All patients must be treated as if they have COVID-19, requiring our firefighters to don proper personal protective equipment (PPE) on all calls,” he said, adding that at a minimum, this requires an approved mask, eye protection, gloves, and gown. “This added personal protective equipment adds valuable seconds to the clock, slows our response, and increases stress on our firefighters.”
The opportunity for a vaccine further protects firefighters, their families, and the community from contracting the disease, and the union’s leadership “recommends all firefighters to receive the vaccine to prevent further spread. Doing so will help keep us healthy and allow our department to maintain a sustainable workforce to handle all routine and major emergencies.”