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Firefighters in California get hero’s welcome as they rush to vaccinate poor and underserved residents

Chanelle Chandler
·Producer
·4-min read

On the morning of Feb. 10 in Chula Vista, Calif., a long line of people wrapped around a building and a sense of anticipation filled the air. At the sound of an approaching truck, some residents began waving excitedly, while others wiped tears from their eyes.

This was no rock concert or celebrity sighting, however. It was the kickoff to a pop-up vaccination site run by local firefighters who have spent the past month going door-to-door in poor Hispanic neighborhoods vaccinating seniors for COVID-19 in an operation dubbed Operation Immunity.

Knocking on doors, traveling to trailer parks and manning vaccination centers, the firefighters have so far inoculated more than 1,000 people — residents who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

“Our firefighters realized that we have a large population within our community that didn’t have the ability to jump in a car and drive down, didn’t have the ability to get on the phone and make an appointment. Some folks didn’t even have web access to get online and see where these vaccination centers were,” Chula Vista’s battalion chief Darrell Roberts told Yahoo News. “As firefighters, we are very entwined in the community and we know where these people are at, so we started to do a community reach out.”

Chula Vista resident gets vaccinated by city firefighter
A Chula Vista resident gets vaccinated by a local firefighter.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 27,453 cases of COVID-19 reported in the city of almost 300,000 residents and whose population is roughly 60 percent Hispanic. According to a July 2019 U.S. Census report, about 10 percent of Chula Vista’s residents also fall below the poverty line.

“What the pandemic has shown is a lot of disparities within the health care system and people being able to access good health care,” Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas explained to Yahoo News. “We knew that we had to do something extraordinary in order to make sure that our community that was heavily impacted by COVID-19 got the best immunization programs that we could possibly offer.”

Roberts says the fire department learned about many hard-to-reach residents through calls and requests on social media, where relatives have shared stories of incapacitated family members or those struggling with a language barrier. A 20-year Chula Vista fire department veteran, Roberts describes the first day of the program as an “incredible moment in history” for the firefighters as people welcomed them with thunderous applause from those who’d come to get vaccinated at a local community center.

Chula Vista residents
Chula Vista residents wait in line to get vaccinated by firefighters. (City of Chula Vista)

“For many people, it was almost like a party atmosphere for them, realizing we were going to them,” Roberts said. “To see literally dozens of elderly people outside on their driveway waving to us as we were coming by, we were almost at a sense of urgency like ‘we better get to these people before it gets dark.’”

"I just appreciate they come here and help us out so we don’t have to worry about going somewhere,” Chula Vista resident Sung Ja Oh shared with KPBS radio. “A lot of people can’t drive — the people who live here.”

Roberts said the expressions of gratitude were a therapeutic reprieve from the daily trauma that firefighters are exposed to, especially in the midst of another disastrous wildfire season for California.

“For many of our firefighters, one in particular, a 32-year veteran of the fire service and he says ‘this last week was the most gratifying time as a firefighter that he has ever spent.’ That really says something about the program and how lucky we are to provide that service.”

The city's first goal is to continue to vaccinate those who are most vulnerable. “We have no end goal,” Salas said. “As many of those vaccines become available to our city, we fully intend to deploy our firefighters and our ambulances to provide that service to our community.”

The next priority for Operation Immunity is vaccinating Chula Vista’s homeless population, which numbers roughly 2,000 people. Roberts says he’s hopeful that Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, which received an emergency-use authorization this weekend from the Food and Drug Administration, would be an easier route to take in inoculating a more transient community.

“Our firefighters are considered heroes in our community,” Salas added. “We know from many testimonies that they are incredibly grateful for what the city of Chula Vista and our firefighters are doing for them.”

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