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Back when New York City was filled with sirens around the clock, FDNY Emergency Medical Services Captain Anthony Almojera responded to a Brooklyn address and encountered a man in a wheelchair who said he was worried about his mother.
The man explained that his handicap restricted him to the first floor while his mother slept on the second. She had been experiencing mild, COVID-like symptoms and had failed to come down to make his breakfast as she usually did. She had not responded when he repeatedly called to her, and he had finally dialed 911.
Almojera went upstairs and returned to inform the man that his mother was dead. Almojera asked if there was anybody he could call to come be with him. The man said there was nobody.
Almojera did what he could to comfort the man, but more calls were coming over the radio. The moment came when Almojera had no choice but to leave the man as alone as anybody could be and proceed on to other DOAs.
“I was getting 10 a day, 11 a day,” Almojera recalled this week. “One day, it was 13.”
“I was really hoping this would be a moment that the country would come together, that the whole world come together, because we are all in this, rich and poor alike,” he said.
On Dec. 23 of last year, he went to the FDNY Training Academy on Randall’s Island and became one of the first EMS members to get the shot. He posted a message on Facebook as both someone still responding to COVID calls and as the vice president of Local 3621, the Uniformed EMS Officers Union.
“Please get the vaccine if you can. Let’s make it so next holiday season we can spend it with family.”
But his hopes for a moment of global unity were dashed as public health was politicized and a Trump-fueled divide extended from masks to vaccines. Mandates were denounced as threats to freedom. And falsehoods spouted by loonies that would otherwise have been dismissed and ignored were amplified by social media.
“There was always a crazy in the room,” Almojera said. “What happens in social media is those crazies were able to connect.”
Only roughly half of the EMTs, paramedics, and firefighters of the FDNY have gotten vaccinated so far. The NYPD has done a little better, with 69 percent vaccinated. But both are considerably below the 77.4 percent of the city as a whole.
The vaccination rate for teachers was about the same as that for the cops when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all school employees would have to get the shot or lose their jobs. The city says 95 percent of the teachers were vaccinated by the Oct. 5 deadline.
But de Blasio was less eager to play tough guy with the FDNY and the NYPD. He worked out a deal by which other city workers including paramedics, firefighters, and cops who refused the vaccine would be allowed to undergo weekly testing.
One member in Almojera’s command apparently grew weary of the swab and went for the needle. Almojera figured that the rest would eventually do the same save for an intransigent few.
But before that might have happened de Blasio announced on Monday morning that all city employees would have to get at least one shot by Oct. 29. Those who did would receive a $500 bonus. Those who did not would be placed on unpaid leave until they produced proof of vaccination.
The toughened mandate was announced when Almojera was at the airport, just about to fly off on an international vacation that would not have been possible had it not been for international vaccinations. He was as pro-jab as ever, but he was also a union official raised as the son of a Brooklyn union longshoreman. And the mayor had given the membership little reason to believe he had their well-being at heart. De Blasio had long opposed granting them pay parity with firefighters, and he had spoken of layoffs after the big COVID surge and as he opposed classifying those felled by the virus as line-of-duty deaths that would give survivors additional benefits, like health insurance for spouses.
Even so, Almojera figured things might have been different if de Blasio had planned ahead and said back at the time of the first vaccinations that he would be issuing a mandate when the FDA gave its full approval.
“He could have said it then: “Get your affairs in order, because this is what’s happening,” Almojhera said.
That was not how de Blasio played it. Almojera now found himself a devoted believer in the vaccine who felt compelled to join his union brothers and sisters in officially opposing a vaccine mandate.
“It’s kind of a difficult spot to be in,” Almojera siad.
At least the president of Almojera’s local was more reasonable in his response than the leaders of the cop and firefighters unions.
“While we support the vaccine we believe the current negotiated process of having vaccinated members and weekly testing for unvaccinated members is a good compromise that is respectful to individual rights,” Local 3621 of the FDNY EMS Officers head Vincent Variale said in a statement.
The head of the Police Officers Benevolent Association, Pat Lynch, was as strident as ever, pledging to take the mandate to court to fight for the cops’ rights. The head of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, Andrew Ansbro, began his statement as might be expected.
“We in the UFA have always been pro-vaccine, but we are also pro-choice and anti-mandate,” Ansbro began.
It sounded as if he were about to become a third union leader pledging to defend his members’ individual rights, despite the U.S. Supreme Court having ruled back in 1905 that local government has the constitutional authority to impose a vaccine mandate “if necessary for the public health or safety.”
But Ansbro instead proceeded into full fiction.
“Since the pandemic has started, we were all told that our salvation would come when we reached herd immunity,” he continued. “I’m here to say that after 55% of all members have been vaccinated [and] 75 to 70 percent have been sick, New York City firefighters have reached herd immunity.”
What Ansbro had reached was herd mentality. The head of Local 2507 of Uniformed EMTs, Paramedics, and Fire Inspectors, Oren Barzilay, was right there with him. Barzilay insisted his union is “pro-choice,” not anti-vaccine. He then predicted that while some of his members “will fold,” others will walk out rather than get the shot.
“Why risk their lives with a vaccine that hasn’t been proven to save lives” he said in his own bit of fiction. “The government is oppressing the true information. They only put out information that they want everybody to be vaccinated. Why isn’t there open discussion about the adverse effects?”
He also said, “For every doctor or scientist that says these vaccines are effective, I can get 10 doctors and 10 scientists to say otherwise.”
Those would have to be from the many individual crazies who populate social media. No reputable people of medicine or science would affirm Barzilay’s view.
He said his local would be joining other city unions in a coalition—or maybe call it a herd, to go along with the cop unions in Chicago and Seattle that are also fighting the mandate. He invoked a dark vision of how things could go in New York.
“There’s going to be no ambulance responding to your call to save your loved ones,” Barzilay said. “If you have a life and death situation, God help you, because they’re not going to be there.”
That was wild fearmongering. And it was all the more shameful for being in the same city where Almojera went to 13 DOAs in a single day. He is not sure whatever happened to the man who was alone in a wheelchair after his mother died in that time when New York was filled with ambulance sirens and one could still hope the vaccine would bring us all together.