‘Hesitancy everywhere’: Decatur incentivizes first responders to get COVID-19 vaccine

201231-Decatur-Dr. Sandra Valenciano, medical director for the DeKalb County Board of Health, receives one of the first Covid-19 vaccines from registered nurse Sheila Alexander at the Board of Health’s offices in Decatur on Friday morning, Dec. 31, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
201231-Decatur-Dr. Sandra Valenciano, medical director for the DeKalb County Board of Health, receives one of the first Covid-19 vaccines from registered nurse Sheila Alexander at the Board of Health’s offices in Decatur on Friday morning, Dec. 31, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Decatur is offering an incentive package to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as an encouragement for hesitant city employees, especially first responders.

The DeKalb County city is offering extra vacation time, health insurance credits and raffled gift cards to try to increase vaccination rates. Fewer than half of the city’s 150 first responders — police officers, firefighters and public works employees — have gotten vaccinated, Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He estimated that 40-45% of them have chosen to get vaccinated, despite all first responders having ample opportunity to get vaccinated as part of the state’s vaccine rollout plan. The lagging percentage mirrors a problem many metro Atlanta counties and cities are encountering among frontline government employees.

“There’s hesitancy everywhere, which is unfortunate given the consequences of the pandemic,” he said. “I think there’s been a lot of misinformation about (the vaccines).”

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The Decatur City Commission passed the incentive program during a Tuesday night meeting, and it’ll be active until all full-time city employees have a chance to get vaccinated. Vaccinations are currently limited to first responders, Georgians 65 and older, healthcare workers and long-term care employees.

Decatur city employees who receive both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will receive an extra day of vacation. For each dose, they’ll also receive a healthy credit, which goes toward health insurance discounts. Sixteen $25 gift cards will also be raffled off to city employee who get vaccinated.

“It’s a modest incentive,” Saxon said. “We’re interested in getting as many employees as possible vaccinated, not only for their benefit but for the benefit of the people we serve.”

Decatur Fire Chief Toni Washington said she was the first person in the city to become vaccinated. However, Washington said many of her firefighters still have concerns.

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“A lot of what we’re hearing is that the vaccinations are new,” she said. “A lot of the firefighters and first responders haven’t gotten COVID yet, so they’re trying to hold off, and others were (wondering) if the government would support them if they had severe adverse reactions.”

Decatur has given all city employees two weeks of paid leave for COVID-related issues. Workers who have already used that time would need to use personal time off if they experience side effects from vaccination, Washington said.

Side effects are possible from the vaccines, but health experts say they’re evidence of the body mounting a strong immune response. Recorded adverse reactions have been incredibly rare.

Police Chief Mike Booker has also received the vaccine, and his department said about 61% of its employees have been vaccinated.

“Receiving the vaccine is a personal choice that must be made by each employee,” Sgt. John Bender said in an email. “Employees have been encouraged to take the vaccine, but ultimately it is their decision.”

Not many metro Atlanta cities have enacted a coronavirus vaccine incentive program. The first was Acworth, which is offering $200 Walmart gift cards to its employees.

DeKalb’s public safety leaders have also lamented the low vaccination rates among the DeKalb County Police Department and DeKalb County Fire Rescue. Earlier this month, DeKalb said only 18% of police employees and 30% of fire employees have chosen to get vaccinated.

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While access to vaccine doses has been limited to the public due to high demand, Saxon said first responders have had ample opportunity to sign up for vaccination. Police, firefighters and paramedics have been able to sign up since the beginning of 2021.

Decatur will also hold educational forums and distribute informational materials to city employees in hopes of bolstering confidence in vaccine safety.

“We really want 100%, and I think we’re on the way there,” he said.

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