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Steubenville police feel left out on vaccine priority list

STEUBENVILLE — Police officers locally are questioning why they’ve fallen off Ohio’s vaccine priority list, despite the more than 300 members of the law enforcement community nationwide who’ve died after contracting COVID-19 and countless others who’ve been sickened by it.

Ohio’s vaccine distribution plan identified health care and EMS workers, nursing home residents and staff as high priority in Phase 1A of the fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended vaccinating “essential personnel” – including police – and those 75 or older in Phase 1B of the vaccine roll out, but Gov. Mike DeWine and the state health department, concerned at how children are being impacted by distance learning, decided instead to offer it to teachers as well as senior citizens 65 and older.

There’s no word when police officers will have the option to roll up their sleeves.

“We’re ‘essential workers,’ but not essential enough to get the vaccine,” said a frustrated Steubenville Patrolman Jim Marquis, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Steuben Lodge No. 1. “Not taking anything away from EMS or firefighters, but nine times out of 10 cops are the first ones in. Do you think we think about throwing a mask on when there’s a wreck or (someone needs help)? We don’t — all we think about is helping the public.”

Jefferson County’s health department had to scrap plans to vaccinate the law enforcement community Friday after finding out its Erie County counterparts had their wrists slapped by the DeWine administration for administering leftover vaccine to about 200 police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

A DeWine spokesman initially was quoted by Toledo’s WTOL-TV a week ago as saying “… we want them to contact the state if they have extra doses. The vaccine rollout requires a coordinated response.”

The governor has since clarified that, if there are extra doses, local health officials should redistribute them, but they need to try to stay within the Phase 1A and 1B demographics.

“We had a plan in place, a location in place (and) during (the week) we were notified we can’t administer the vaccine to police,” Jefferson County Board of Health member Dr. Patrick Macedonia said. “We (asked) them why not, since we consider police to be emergency medical responders.”

But Macedonia also pointed out Jefferson County doesn’t have the hundreds of unused doses other communities have had.

“We know the day before (an event) how many people have signed up, so if somebody gets sick or changes their mind we may have one or two left over but not enough to cover the police (community) by any means,” he said. “We just don’t have the means (to do it).”

Macedonia said the vaccines also require special handling: Moderna’s vaccine can be stored up to 30 days in a normal refrigerator, longer in a higher performance one. The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at a much colder temperature – minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit – far beyond the capabilities of most health departments and pharmacies. If a special freezer isn’t available, Pfizer provides special coolers that have to be refilled with dry ice every five days. In a traditional refrigerator, the vaccine’s shelf life is about five days.

“There’d have to be a pretty quick response,” Macedonia said. “My recommendation to the health department is to compile a list of police officers and if we have leftover doses, we can call them. We only have a limited amount of time to keep them thawed.”

Marquis said he’s already reached out to local health officials to ask that police be given consideration if there’s extra. He concedes not all officers want the shot, but insists those who do — particularly those who are older or have underlying health conditions that put them at heightened risk – should be able to get one.

“This stuff has to be kept cold,” Marquis said. “If they don’t use all their doses, they have to throw them away. So if (they tell us) we’ll get guys there.”

Marquis said he’s talked with local health officials, “but they said they’re (bound by the state’s dictates). I advised them if they have any leftovers at facilities where they’re giving vaccinations, call us and we’ll have guys there.”

“There are several from a handful of law enforcement agencies that do want it,” he added, pointing out that police “can’t answer police calls from home, we can’t stop a robbery from our phone.”

“Hopefully, within the next two weeks the governor will see fit (to vaccinate us),” Marquis said. “We’re usually the first ones in, we’re first responders – and we go in with paper dentist masks.”

Macedonia said he “totally agrees.”

“(But) it’s not our decision,” Macedonia said. “We tried, we had everything in place but we were told no. I totally agree with them, police officers are first responders – they’re going into homes and all different places, I’m not sure why they weren’t 1A.”

The National Fraternal Order of Police reports more than 302 police officers have died after contracting the coronavirus.

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