PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The job status of unvaccinated firefighters in Rhode Island remains uncertain, even after a judge ruled in favor of the McKee administration and upheld the Oct. 1 vaccine deadline for health-care workers.
The requirement that all licensed health-care workers in Rhode Island be vaccinated against COVID-19 — a rule that includes emergency medical technicians (EMTs) — went into effect Friday. Most of Rhode Island’s fire departments provide both fire and emergency medical services, with the majority of calls pertaining to medical emergencies.
While the vaccination deadline has come and gone, it remains unclear if EMT licenses will be pulled for those who haven’t complied.
In Providence, for example, 12 firefighters remained unvaccinated as of Monday, according to Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, who is also the acting fire chief.
But they are still on the job at the moment, Paré said, since the Department of Health has not taken action against their EMT licenses. The unvaccinated firefighters are doing their usual assignments, including treating patients, Paré confirmed. They are being tested for COVID twice a week.
“If the Department of Health does their audit and suspends their EMT license then their employment will be separated,” Paré said.
The unvaccinated firefighters represent a small percentage of the more than 400-person department.
Officials at the Department of Health have not said exactly when they will start suspending EMT licenses. An affidavit signed last month by Tom McCarthy, the department’s executive director of COVID response, said the state would not “immediately” revoke EMT licenses after the deadline, and would handle them on a case-by-case basis.
But the actual language of the mandate contains little ambiguity: “By October 1, 2021, all health care workers and health care providers must be vaccinated,” unless they obtain a medical exemption.
Asked for clarity Monday, Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken further said the state will be “asking licensees to attest that they are vaccinated,” and will be separately doing audits by license type.
“That will start happening in the coming weeks,” Wendelken said Monday.
The lack of clarity on the true deadline has led to a mix of policies across the state, and confusion about what unvaccinated firefighters can and can’t do on the job right now.
In North Providence, Mayor Charles Lombardi said only one of the town’s firefighters remains unvaccinated. That firefighter has been suspended without pay “until further notice,” pending word from the Department of Health.
North Providence sent a notice to firefighters on Aug. 31 with a clear message about the Oct. 1 deadline: “All employees who do not comply with the vaccination mandate will be terminated with just cause from employment with the North Providence Fire Department.”
“When they got the letter, within half a day 10 of them signed up for a shot,” Lombardi said. In all, 19 of the 20 previously unvaccinated firefighters got vaccinated in the final month before the deadline, he said.
Joseph Andriole, the president of the R.I. State Association of Firefighters, said some departments are suspending unvaccinated firefighters, some are terminating them, and others are allowing them to stay on but without treating patients.
The latter option is tricky, since most calls involve some sort of patient interaction.
“Does that mean they can’t drive the truck?” Andriole asked. “Seventy percent of what we do every day in the fire service here in Rhode Island has patient care involved in it.”
Even 911 calls that aren’t initially for EMS — such as a fire — could turn into a situation requiring medical care.
“Anyone who is unvaccinated can’t go and help,” Andriole said. He said the union would seek to prevent terminations.
Andriole said leaders of the firefighters’ association fought the vaccine mandate because they believed it should have included a religious exemption and a more expansive medical exemption, but he said they support vaccination and have worked to convince hesitant firefighters to get the shot.
The association’s members are now nearly 97% vaccinated, Andriole said Monday. He doesn’t anticipate that number increasing much more. The association represents roughly 1,500 firefighters in 31 departments in Rhode Island. (Providence is not one of them.)
Now that a judge ruled against the association, Andriole said departments are looking for clarity on what to do next.
“A lot of this really lies in the hands of the Department of Health, which I think has shown such poor leadership and decisiveness of what they are and aren’t going to do,” he said.