Firefighters and religious leaders team up to vaccinate vulnerable people


MIAMI BEACH – At the end of a recent Sunday evening mass in the Spanish language, Reverend Roberto Cid made an announcement that woke up many gray-haired heads.

“If you are over 65 and reside in Florida and want a COVID vaccine, call the parish office and we can help you,” the Roman Catholic priest said, as happy nods ensued. spread on the pews of historic St. Patrick’s Church.

Across much of the country, obtaining the coveted vaccine has been extremely difficult for many older people due to complicated and overtaxed websites and bureaucracies – and even more so for those with disabilities, homebound or not. ‘have no family to help them.

But in Miami Beach, religious leaders and firefighters have joined forces to speed up gun shots in the arms of the elderly, starting with those homeless and those living in low-income housing, winning the applause. new vaccines and their relieved relatives.

Until the end of February, the initiative was responsible for delivering 5,466 gunshots to the city, where 17% of its 92,000 residents are 65 and over, including hundreds of survivors of the Holocaust. This is in addition to other vaccinations organized by hospitals and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, in the region.

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“We are not responding with lights and sirens, but we are responding to a need in the community,” said fire chief Virgil Fernandez. “For many vulnerable people, we are the first line of defense.”

The initiative began to take shape long before vaccines were even available. Early last fall, division chief Digna Abello began pushing for the fire department to rent a freezer capable of storing Pfizer vaccine at the required ultra-cold temperatures, assuming it would be approved and that the 200 firefighters in the department, all trained paramedics, could help distribute it.

With the program now operational since January, every day, in the midst of a mountain of well-organized paperwork in her office at the fire station, she manually enters into the state database each vaccine issued by firefighters and nurses which now support them, using a data entry system that it has created.

“It’s easier to look away. But if we have the capacity… ”Abello said, his voice fading. The 38-year-old mother self-assigns tasks that often keep her at work until 2 a.m., such as getting the most efficient syringes that waste as little precious vaccine as possible.

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“Every drop has to be taken care of,” said Captain Mark Schwartz, who loads the vials into ice packs for daily deliveries and has his phone set up to alert him of any temperature change in the vaccine freezers around the world. department.

“The first time we had 1,000,000 doses,” Schwartz said, “I couldn’t sleep -“ I have 1,000 of what everyone wants! “

The biggest challenge was getting the vaccines to the people who needed them most and had the most difficulty navigating online registrations or mass vaccination sites – like a 96-year-old man who is unable to. got out of bed in a cramped apartment and got her second dose of Schwartz in mid-February.

Firefighters already have an “evacuation list” of the people they need to get to safety during hurricanes. To go beyond that, they turned to temples and churches that serve and know many of the most needy in the community. Rabbis and pastors keep lists of those who need or have asked for help with a vaccine, as soon as the doses are available.

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One of them is Rabbi Mendy Levy of the Chabad Hasidic movement, who qualified to receive the vaccine due to his frontline work as a hospital chaplain and immediately posted about it online. to encourage others.

“We have to be examples for the rest of the community,” he said.

Levy helps train healthcare providers who treat Holocaust survivors, some of whom may be re-traumatized by triggers such as injections and white coats after being subjected to experiments conducted by doctors in camps. concentration. It is essential that firefighters and nurses bring vaccines to a welcoming place, such as a synagogue or a patient’s home, and visit them and their families.

“Although it’s a trigger, so in general they’re scared, they recognize it’s a gift from God,” Levy said.

Firefighter Eric Cento, who worked two additional volunteer teams per week, gave a shot to a Holocaust survivor in the late 1990s, earlier this year. During his visit, the woman showed family photos and offered him food, he recalls.

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“To be able to help someone like that… they’ve been waiting a long time,” he said. “It’s like going to a grandparent.”

While religious leaders help with awareness, their help transcends congregations and belief systems. A married couple Cento helped get their first doses at a community center for the elderly were listed by a synagogue, but they are not Jewish.

Their daughter, Karin Matos, said the family was “desperate” after four nurses providing home care to her 93-year-old father tested positive. She tried every vaccine list she could find, but deleted each one. Then she heard about the one that was maintained by Temple Beth Sholom and signed them.

“The city literally called the same day,” said Matos.

Ten days later, Matos’ parents received their first vaccines. Then they sat for a 15-minute observation period to make sure they came out without any allergic reactions, alerted by two cook timers ringing loudly under their chairs when that time was up. Then all three stepped out into a warm South Florida sea breeze.

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“I think,” said Matos’ mother Helga Huget, 82, “we have a good guardian angel.”


The Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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