Firefighters in California get hero’s welcome as they rush to vaccinate poor and underserved residents

Knocking on doors, traveling to trailer parks and manning vaccination centers, Chula Vista firefighters have so far sought out and inoculated more than 1,000 people with no web access, language barriers, no transportation, and/or physical ailments during Operation Immunity — residents who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

Video Transcript

DARRELL ROBERTS: Firefighters realized that we have a large population within our community that didn't have the ability to jump in a car and drive down, didn't have the ability to get on a phone and make and appointment. Some folks didn't even have web access to get online to see where the vaccination centers were.

So our city and our firefighters really start to think, OK, what about these people that don't have, quote, unquote, "the luxury" to go down in and get the vaccine, what are we doing for them? And it was through contacts that we had made from running on medical aid in certain communities, social media. People were contacting us going, hey, I have a family member that lives with us. They're in the tier. But they're bedridden. Is there any chance you can come to them to provide the vaccine?

And with our fire department and the city, we realized what a beautiful opportunity for us to provide that service to them. So it was really what firefighters are all about, is helping people. And we decided to go to them, and hence Operation Immunity really kicked off.

MARY CASILLAS SALAS: The city of Chula Vista and surrounding South Bay cities are predominantly Hispanic. And so as you know, what the pandemic has showed it's a lot of disparities within the health care system and people being able to access good health care. And so COVID has just brought that to light. And so we knew that we had to do something extraordinary in order to make sure that our community that was heavily impacted by COVID-19 got the best testing facilities and the best immunization programs that we could possibly offer.

DARRELL ROBERTS: One of the first days, we went to a local trailer park here, where as we were driving into the complex, we saw elderly folks sitting outside their driveways with chairs and the little waiver for them to get the vaccine. And it was just a very touching moment for us because most of the time when the fire department show up, we're there to provide emergency services to people.

But this time, we were ahead of any issues. We were being proactive in getting the vaccine out. And for many people, it was almost like a party atmosphere for them, realizing that we were going to them. And to see literally dozens of elderly people outside on their driveway waving to us as we were coming by, we were almost in a sense of urgency, going like, we better get to these people before it started to get dark.

In one of the homes, they were sisters both in their late 80s. And they were just overwhelmed with emotion. They were Spanish-speaking, so we had a language barrier. They didn't have a computer in their house. They were barely able to operate their phones.

And they were telling me in Spanish that if we didn't go to them, they wouldn't know where they would get the vaccine. And that's very emotional for a firefighter to hear that. And for many of our firefighters-- one in particular, a 32-year veteran of the fire service. And he says this last week was the most gratifying time as a firefighter he's ever spent in the last 32 years. So that really says something about the program and how lucky we are to provide that service.

SUNG JA OH: We don't have to worry about going somewhere and looking for transportation. Not all people who can drive over here, the people who live here.

DARRELL ROBERTS: So if we can show up to our friends and to our neighbors and provide information that's accurate, information that's timely in a way that we can relate and to sit across the table and to really break down what the vaccination is doing in simple terms-- we want to limit the spread. We want to continue with social distancing. We want to continue for you to wear your mask, wash your hands. But at the same time, the most important thing that we can do, we know with certainty, is get that vaccine.

MARY CASILLAS SALAS: Our firefighters are considered heroes in our community, as they are in many communities. And so that they would go out to a home where the person was incapacitated, immobile, or just could not have access to transportation to get to vaccine sites, we know from many testimonies from them that they're incredibly grateful to what the city of Chula Vista and our firefighters are doing for them.