Why won't the City of London say how many firefighters aren't vaccinated?

Paramedics and police officers responding to emergencies have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but firefighters in London, Ont., do not. That has some of their colleagues questioning the city policy that allows first responders to continue working despite not being vaccinated.

City officials won't provide a breakdown of how many people didn't get a COVID vaccine

The city of London has not revealed what percentage of employees, including firefighers, have received vaccine exemptions. (Supplied by London Fire Department)

As the Omicron variant continues to spread and public health officials urge those eligible to get COVID-19 boosters, some London firefighters are raising concerns about how many of their colleagues have received vaccine exemptions, a number city officials refuse to reveal. 

Firefighters are the only first responders in the city allowed to work without getting a vaccination against the coronavirus, provided they sign a declaration saying they are exempt, either for medical or human rights reasons, such as religious opposition to vaccinations. 

"To my knowledge, fire administration has not been notified of the percentages of vaccinated, partially vaccinated and those that are unvaccinated," said Jason Timlick, the president of the union that represents the city's 450 firefighters.

The city will only say that 100 per cent of firefighters are compliant with the city's vaccination policy, meaning they've either shown proof that they're vaccinated or signed a document saying they have an exemption. City officials say they will not reveal how many firefighters have signed attestations saying they are exempt from the shot.

Paramedics and police officers are each covered under separate policies that state they must be vaccinated or face discipline. Fewer than 10 police officers and six paramedics are on unpaid leave because they haven't gotten their COVID shots, representatives of the London Police Service and the Middlesex-London Paramedic Service say. 

Several firefighters have contacted CBC News, expressing concern that they may be working alongside colleagues who are not vaccinated, and that those workers are responding to emergencies in the community without being vaccinated.

More concerns with Omicron

The situation has Coun. Maureen Cassidy worried. She chairs the community and protective services committee, which oversees the fire department. She also sits on the London Police Services Board and the board of health. 

"I'm concerned. Our concern as a city, as an employer, is the health and safety of al our employees. We know that Omicron is about four times more contagious than the Delta variant, and the Delta variant was more contagious than previous variants," Cassidy said. 

"This is not only about health benefits to the individual, but also the duty of care for our fellow citizens." 

Cassidy said she is going to reach out to city manager Lynne Livingstone about the city's policy and how it applies to firefighters. 

"I'm going to be talking to the city manager, to find out if anything can be done to make sure that the public is safe and that our firefighters and the people that work for the London Fire Department are safe," Cassidy said. 

New vaccine guidance coming as omicron variant spreads

1 year ago
Duration 6:48
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician with Trillium Health Partners in Ontario's Peel Region, says the omicron variant of the coronavirus is informing decisions on booster shots and travel restrictions.

A city spokesperson said firefighters have additional COVID protections in place, including eye protection worn at all times except if it is impeding driving, and suppression staff are working in cohorts wherever possible to limit interactions. 

"If any city employee is concerned that a colleague has made a false attestation, they can file a complaint through the code of ethics process. Any complaints will be investigated and acted on. We made this clear when we launched the policy. To date, we have not had any complaints filed," the spokesperson wrote in an email. 

'Do the right thing'

No one's legal attestation has been questioned by city officials as far as he knows, Timlick said.

"We're also working under very strict PPE rules when we go into any private and public residence or business," he said. "I know my members 24-7, 365 days a year, go to work, do their job professionally and respectfully, serving the community of London."

Vaccines have been endorsed by major religious leaders, Cassidy said, and are a clear way to help limit COVID-19 spread. 

"People are cancelling Christmas again. I've cancelled Christmas and I'm very, very sad about that," Cassidy said. "Every step of this pandemic, we've had opportunities. Everybody in society has had opportunities to do the right thing. If every single person chose every step of the way to make the right decision and do the right thing, maybe we wouldn't be where we are right now."