D.C. is requiring its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but hundreds of D.C. Fire and EMS employees are requesting religious exemptions.
Of the more than 2,100 D.C. Fire and EMS employees, 419 are filing a religious accommodation form with the city.
“They’re requests at this point,” Fire Chief John Donnelly said. “They will be ruled on by the Department of Health. We don’t rule on them. There’s a process for that.”
Those unvaccinated employees are tested daily, pending a ruling.
“When the ruling is made, they’ll have a series of choices,” Donnelly said. “They’ll either have to come into compliance or they will not have a medical license anymore, and that will prevent them from having a job.”
While the overall number of city employees requesting exemptions is down, the fire department’s number has stayed steady.
“The real question isn’t how many people it is, but you gotta really think about why people aren’t getting the vaccine, and that’s what we’re focused on,” Donnelly said. “We want to alleviate people’s fears; we want to educate them. The vaccine’s safe, it’s good, it’s effective. We know it works.”
Donnelly said they also know the dangers of contracting COVID-19 are real, especially for those in the firefighting industry.
“Across the nation, more firefighters have died in the last two months than any two-month period across COVID, so this is a very dangerous disease for firefighters,” Donnelly said.
D.C. Fire and EMS is not alone in having resistance in the ranks.
“We’re not the worst but we’re not the best,” Donnelly said. “But we will be the best.”
A group of firefighters called DC Firefighters Bodily Autonomy Affirmation Group pledged to push back against the mandate, arguing for routine, before-duty testing of unvaccinated firefighters instead of a vaccine mandate.
"We want to forcefully push back against the harassment, bullying and now doxing that our members are experiencing for standing for their sincerely held religious beliefs," the group said in a statement. "We have members of all demographic and spiritual backgrounds whose sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from taking the vaccine. As we have courageously served throughout the pandemic, our members have drawn closer to their spiritual sources of strength, fortifying their faith as together we are on the frontlines of not only the pandemic, but of the many daily traumatic events that we witness. Whether this is the ever-increasing murders, tragic deaths of kids or the times we are required to put our own lives on the line."
D.C. set a Sept. 30 deadline for city employees to get at least one shot or face termination.
Earlier this week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also announced an expansion of the mandate: All employees at schools and day cares, including those run privately, will be required to be vaccinated by November.