‘Herd immunity’ misinformation used in firefighter union exec’s defense of opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandate

What happens when the first responder employed to save your life risks exposure to a deadly virus?

The FDNY Uniformed Firefighters Association held a press conference on Oct. 20 to announce that they not only stand by firefighters who are refusing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, they also exclaimed that they are also anti-mandate. The news came hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an order mandating that all city employees get at least the first dose of the vaccine by 5 p.m. Oct. 29, or be sent home without pay until they do.

“I represent 20,000 active or retired New York City firefighters. I’m here to speak on behalf of the other 3,500 New York City firefighters that are unvaccinated, 45% of all New York City firefighters at this time are unvaccinated,” said Andrew Ansbro, president of the FDNY-UFA, Wednesday afternoon.

Ansbro then proceeded to rattle off a series of scientifically unfounded claims, such as the belief that the department has reached herd immunity since the vast majority of firefighters have already contracted the novel coronavirus.

“Over 70% of New York City firefighters have been sick with COVID in the last 20 months. And as of right now 45% are unvaccinated. We in the UFA have always been pro-vaccine, but we are also pro-choice and anti-mandate. Since the pandemic has started, we were all told that our salvation would come when we reached herd immunity. I’m here to say that after 55% of all members have been vaccinated 75-70% have been sick, New York City firefighters have reached herd immunity,” Ansbro said.

The World Health Organization’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan explained herd immunity on the organization website, stating that this can be achieved once a significant portion of the population is vaccinated, which would then lower the ability for COVID-19 to spread. However, the organization also underscores that although it has been found that people who are infected with COVID-19 develop an immune response within the first few weeks, it is unknown how strong or lasting that response is. As well as how it differs from person to person. Additionally, there have been reports of people infected with COVID-19 for more than one time. 

“So even if 1% of people who get infected are ultimately going to die, then this can add up to a huge number of people, if we look at the global population. And that is why we believe it’s not a good idea to try to achieve herd immunity by just letting the infection run wild in the population and infect a lot of people and that we should talk about herd immunity in the context of a vaccine,” Dr. Swaminathan said in an interview in August 2020. 

There are still many unknown factors of COVID-19 immunity, and the WHO organization believes the best way to combat the disease is through vaccination. 

The Mayo Clinic also points out that herd immunity can’t be achieved if widespread vaccine hesitancy occurs, because that allows a contagious illness to continue spreading.

Bobby Eustace. Photo by Dean Moses

Those at the UFA think differently. They believe to have achieved herd immunity through their group of workers’ past encounters with the disease, a misconception of the concept herd immunity, which focuses on a global population and not a small group.

Feeling that they are on the frontlines risking their lives on a daily basis, the UFA seemed to believe they should be exempt from the mandate.

“To this moment, we haven’t put out one fire via Zoom, we haven’t done CPR via zoom, not once out of the 300,000 city employees that have gone to work, air quotes work. We’ve been here every day. Not via zoom, not clocked in from the couch, come to work, day in day out,” Bobby Eustace, FDNY-UFA’s vice president.

While it was promised that the FDNY will show up for work, President Ansbro worried that the mandate would result in firefighters being sent home and close firehouses.

During his daily press briefing Wednesday, de Blasio shrugged off suggestions that the mandate would result in mass absences among first responders. He said a similar mandate imposed in San Francisco resulted in 95% of first responders getting vaccinated.

“What I think is obvious, after a lot of conversation with the leadership of all of our uniformed agencies, is people are there to do a job and they believe in the work. Also, they’re there for a paycheck, of course. It’s a noble profession, but people want to get paid, and they want to accrue time towards that very, very important pension that they get later on, and folks are not going to give that up by and large,” de Blasio said. “So, our message is simple – get vaccinated, keep with us, keep us moving forward. Anyone who isn’t, will go off payroll onto unpaid leave. We, obviously, have contingencies in place for any gaps that we experience, but our uniformed agency leadership feel very strongly that they will be able to handle any scenario.