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Column: L.A.’s first responders are suing for the right to put themselves and public at risk

If you needed any more evidence that cultural and political chaos reigns, or that scientific scholarship is neither valued nor trusted, I bring your attention to lawsuits filed on behalf of thousands of Los Angeles police officers and firefighters who refuse to get vaccinated.

First responders, whose oath is to serve and protect, and to race into harm’s way in the interest of public safety, are instead turning and running.

The lawsuits argue that the city’s mandate that all employees be vaccinated by Oct. 5 is unconstitutional and a violation of their rights to due process. Another argument is that those who have recovered from COVID-19 are protected by natural immunity and don’t need vaccines.

Roughly 3,000 LAPD members are expected to seek medical or religious exemptions, and hundreds of firefighters, calling themselves “freedom fighters,” are lobbying for more resistance.

“Advisable to encourage all members to Join the Fight for Freedom,” said a bulletin that went out to firefighters Thursday night.

L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer doesn’t seem worried.

“The U.S. Supreme Court, and courts across the country, have upheld vaccination mandates by government and they’ve done so because they said the greater good compels it,” Feuer said.

And yet, it’s not clear what will happen if employees refuse to get jabbed, regardless of how the lawsuit fares. Will they be fired? Suspended? Placed on indefinite leave?

There’s going to have to be a price to pay, because you can’t issue an order without serious consequences for those who ignore it. And sources say that everything is on the table at the moment as city officials and union leaders talk it over.

“We’re engaging labor, as we are required to, and hopefully that process results in getting our employees vaccinated, period,” said City Administrative Officer Matt Szabo.

County officials may end up having to make a choice, as well, about what to do with resisters in the sheriff’s and fire departments. On a private social media site shown to me by a county source, county firefighters have been sharing information on discredited COVID-19 remedies, strategizing on how to combat vaccine mandates and attacking the county Board of Supervisors.

“All those MF on BOS need to be thrown out!” said one post, which suggested supervisors were in closed session so they could kiss the rear end of Gov. Gavin Newsom. “They are ALL ENEMIES OF FIRST RESPONDERS!”

Actually, politicians and the general public tend to be anything but enemies of first responders, who are often characterized as heroes. But the vaccine resisters are squandering that goodwill by rejecting the simplest, safest and most effective remedy for limiting the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives.

One argument I’ve gotten repeatedly from firefighters is that they’ve survived COVID-19 and their natural immunity is as good or better than what the vaccine provides, so why take the risk of side effects? Along with that argument is the claim that this is a case of government overreach.

But Dr. Timothy Brewer, a UCLA physician epidemiologist, has answers.

“As for government overreach, every one of them who went to public school had to be vaccinated,” Brewer said. “So it’s kind of silly to say I’m OK getting vaccines to go to public school, but it’s government overreach to tell me to get a COVID-19 vaccine.”

While there are some vaccine side effects, Brewer said, they are statistically tiny, and overwhelmed by the extraordinary benefits of vaccines “that are among the most intensely tested vaccines ever” and have prevented millions of cases of serious illness, hospitalization and death.

As for the natural immunity argument, Brewer cited numerous studies and mounting evidence that a vaccination provides added protection to those who have natural immunity. He said it “not only boosts their immune response but protects against variants they may not have had, and protects them from infection, which will reduce transmission and protect the people around them.”

It’s also been well established now that the vast majority of people getting seriously ill, requiring hospitalization and dying are unvaccinated. You’d think that with 10 COVID-19 deaths already among LAPD employees, and thousands of infections, the entire force would have gotten the message by now. But at the LAPD and LAFD, roughly half the members are not fully vaccinated.

The good news, you might say, is that thousands of first responders have taken their jab of juice. I asked one vaccinated firefighter if it might help for that group to try to persuade the freedom fighters, who in effect are fighting for the freedom to keep this virus alive, to keep businesses from fully reopening, to put students at risk, to spread disinformation, to discredit science and to send more people to the graveyard.

“Those who are vaxed are not very vocal and the others are loud, and nobody wants a fight,” he said. “It’s polarized along political lines and there’s no sense trying to talk to them.”

I asked him when and why he got vaccinated.

“I got mine as soon as it was available. I wanted to protect my parents and my family. … It was a no-brainer,” he said, adding that he was stressed at the height of the pandemic about contracting the virus on the job and spreading it to others. As a first responder, he said, he thought it was prudent to act in the interest “of the greater good.”

Another firefighter told me he got vaccinated as soon as it was available, and he bristles at the resistance of colleagues, which took him by surprise.

“I never realized that people wouldn’t actually get it, and risk getting COVID and giving it to other members of the organization or the public,” he said. “We are setting a poor example.… People look to us for advice, to keep them safe and care for them and their property in times of need. We are ignoring that duty willfully because of these crackpots who are … misinformed.”

A retired cop and firefighter told me he felt lucky and privileged to work for taxpayers in the interest of public health and safety. Those who resist the vaccine took an oath, and “they are betraying those same citizens they swore to protect.”

Here’s hoping that sentiment will prevail, and that there will be a stiff penalty for betraying the oath.

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