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Column: The clock is ticking on those unvaccinated L.A. city workers. Will they come around?

Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
 2021-10-16
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L.A. city firefighter paramedic Anthony Kong prepares a COVID-19 shot at a fire station in December. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The day of reckoning is almost upon us. Come Wednesday, the deadline for getting COVID-19 vaccinations, we’ll find out what the penalty will be for Los Angeles city employees who refuse to comply with the mandate.

Resisters could number in the thousands. We just won’t know until we know.

But here’s a taxpayer blood pressure alert:

No fewer than 871 members of the Los Angeles Fire Department are named in a notice of intent to sue the city over the mandate, and they are each asking $2.5 million for what they claim is a violation of their rights.

Remember when Capt. Cristian Granucci — one of more than 100 LAFD firefighters who live outside California — said in a video screed that he was so angry about the mandate, his “head could pop”?

That’s how I felt reading the threat of $2.5 million in damages by members of the firefighters union. That would add up to $2 billion. So let’s say my head did explode, but I was still alive. Would I call 911 if it meant a crew of unvaccinated firefighters could come through my door?

In the recently filed “notice of claim and intent to sue for money damages,” the firefighters’ attorney, Kevin McBride, alleges that LAFD chiefs have informed firefighters that if they are not vaccinated by Wednesday, they will be sent home for five days without pay. If they don’t reconsider within the next five days, they will be terminated.

LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas said he had not communicated those terms to firefighters but believes something along those lines is on the list of potential consequences under consideration by city officials. I also saw one proposal that would put unvaccinated employees on notice Wednesday, giving them until Dec. 18 to comply or face unspecified consequences, and requiring them to take a coronavirus test twice a week in the interim on their own time and at their own cost.

But why extend the deadline by two months? For employees who don't fall into line by Wednesday, the five-day deal sounds fair enough to me. Go home and think about it, and if you're a firefighter, think about the $100,000-plus in earnings each year with overtime, along with the subsidy that covers all or most of healthcare premiums, and don’t forget the generous pensions that can kick in when you hit 50 or so.

And if you’re still thinking about it after 10 days, bye-bye.

You might recall that just a couple of weeks ago, county officials revealed that both the LAFD and the LAPD — hotbeds of vaccine resistance — were hotbeds of COVID outbreaks.

As I said at the time, the optics on that are really bad. In the public consciousness, firefighters are loved, and they’re often thought of as heroes for doing work that is both challenging and dangerous. We’re all reminded of this in wildfire season.

But these resisters, posing as freedom fighters, offer a glimpse of a darker side, and they’re squandering trust by refusing a safe and simple procedure that would protect themselves and the public they’re sworn to protect.

And the most maddening part about their defiance?

As a condition of employment with the city of Los Angeles, sworn firefighters have to be up to date with the following vaccines:

Meningitis, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus and hepatitis B.

So why the stand against COVID vaccines?

There is no medical justification, so that means the freedom fighters are either misinformed on the science, or they’re making political statements, or they think a $2.5-million jackpot is the reward for sticking your head in the sand.

Terrazas told me he was at a union meeting two weeks ago attended by 300 firefighters, and the room was overwhelmingly opposed to the vaccine.

“There were about 300 firefighters there, and I’d say well over 95% were 'pro-choice.' That’s the term they use. They don’t say 'anti-vax,'” said Terrazas, who added that in the latest count, 27.3% of his firefighters have not had a single vaccination. (By comparison, 97% of L.A. Unified teachers and administrators were vaccinated as of Friday, the district's vaccination mandate deadline).

The chief told me he tried to educate his troops by bringing in Dr. Stephen Sanko, his medical director and a professor at USC's Keck School of Medicine.

“Dr. Sanko gave them his medical opinion, and I could tell right away that the audience wasn’t receptive,” Terrazas said.

That’s because they’re being fed a load of misinformation. The notice of intent to sue included this claim:

“The COVID vaccines being forced on Claimants by LAFD and the Chiefs are without question experimental medicine, unproven and not approved by any authoritative agency.”

Oh, really?

One firefighter I’ve been in contact with insisted that the vaccines “do not prevent one from acquiring nor transmitting the disease” and are nothing more than “experimental therapeutics.”

“This is not correct,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health. He added that “side effects are very low and comparable to other vaccines.” Millions have been vaccinated, he said, reducing "needless suffering, disability and death." And “the risks of COVID disease are much, much higher than any risk of side effects due to the COVID vaccines.”

Kim-Farley also had this to say:

“In the case of respected community members such as firefighters, they should recognize that others look up to them and so they need to be even more a model of practicing civic responsibility by demonstrating, through example, good behaviors such as getting vaccinated to protect the community as well as themselves.”

Terrazas said this is “the most divisive issue I have seen in my career,” with station houses split and vaccinated members worried about getting an asymptomatic breakthrough infection from unvaccinated colleagues and then transmitting it to a loved one at home.

So what happens if, say, 300 firefighters continue to defy the order and get fired?

Terrazas said that until they could be replaced with new hires, he would consider moving personnel from desk work and special details into station houses, transition from a three-platoon system to a two-platoon operation, and rely on regional departments to help with brush fires.

The next call, though, is up to the anti-vaxxers. They could be just a few days away from making their last run, and they'll have no one to blame but themselves.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times .

Comments / 10

B.B.B. ?
10-16

Nobody or Anyone should be forced to get vaccinated. I will say to those individuals to seek all the necessary information and have your questions answered to full understand the concerns you’re having. I also would say to get the information from a reliable sources. I suggest your personal Doctor or higher on the information table.

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6

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