Sandy Springs Fire Chief Keith Sanders said he’s frustrated less than half of his department’s front-line staff have not taken the COVID-19 vaccine first doses even though they’re part of the first group of individuals who can get inoculated.

“(About) 40% of our firefighters are volunteering not to take those vaccines. Monday, (the city’s) police officers and staff will take it,” he said of the first day Georgia’s first responders not on the front lines can get the vaccine. “... With Sandy Springs, we have offered the public safety facility as a place to administer the vaccine. We are at the top three of locations, once they get more vaccines, as a site to utilize for it. …

“At 40% we’re much higher than the city of Atlanta (Fire Rescue Department), which has much more personnel than we do.”

Sanders talked about the issue during the Sandy Springs City Council’s Jan. 5 meeting, which was held virtually due to the pandemic. He said Dr. Alex Isakov, the city’s medical director, told him the vaccine “is effective for 19 different variants they’ve already verified prior to receiving the emergency-use authorization.

“It doesn’t prevent you from getting COVID, but it helps your body fight COVID if you get it,” Sanders said.

Mayor Rusty Paul said Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s plan to quickly roll out the vaccine, was moving slowly in Fulton County to administer it to eligible residents and workers there because it’s the state’s largest county.

“They’re relying on the county health departments to manage this,” he said. “Fulton County is the largest county in the state and it’s a logistical challenge. It’s frustrating we’re behind some other counties. … Every county is different, and we’re the largest. … But remember, this is the fastest the United States has ever done this with a vaccine.”

To compound things, Paul said, there are fewer healthcare workers available to administer the vaccine.

“A lot of areas have to make the choice: do we do the testing, or do we do vaccines?” he said. “That’s a hard choice because we have to track the pace of the virus and everything.”

In response, Sanders said, his department’s paramedics will be made available to administer the vaccine.

“It will require the city to pay them overtime for paying them on their days off,” he said. “I do believe we’ll receive COVID relief once the new (presidential) administration is installed. To me, it’s a matter of life and death. We’ve offered everything we can: the public safety, the personnel.”

Sanders also said the city is offering coronavirus testing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But it can’t do more because Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), the nonprofit that had been providing daily testing through a partnership with Fulton and other metro Atlanta governments, did not get funding in the stimulus package Congress recently approved.

Paul said he plans to get the vaccine as soon as he’s eligible to.

“It’s very important for local officials to be out front and be very public with the vaccine to show leaders in the city are encouraging everyone to get the vaccine,” he said. “… Right now, you’ve got large numbers of people who are refusing to get vaccinated for reasons beyond my comprehension.”

Sanders said he’s considering requiring his department’s employees to take the vaccine. Some may not be getting it because of myths about possibly contracting COVID from the vaccine. But unlike some previous vaccines, individuals can’t get COVID from taking its vaccine.

“I’ve asked if we can make it mandatory,” Sanders said. “We’re not there yet. But it’s critically important that everyone who can take the vaccine will take the vaccine. It’s a life-or-death situation.”

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