Verena Kansog hasn’t visited her mother in a year, fearing her work as a New York City paramedic would expose her to the coronavirus.
But after a grueling separation, Kansog is headed home for the holidays after becoming one of the first members of the city’s fire department to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It means the world to me,” she said. “I understand people are hesitant to get it, but I really hope they follow our suit.”
After nine harrowing months, the Fire Department of New York began vaccinating its own members Wednesday, starting with the front-line EMTs who this year responded to more than 1 million emergency medical calls throughout New York City.
The rollout marked a milestone for an agency that’s been pushed to the brink and seen more than a third of its 17,000 members test positive for the coronavirus.
But the relief was dampened before the vaccinations began by the death late Tuesday of medical dispatcher Evelyn Ford, the 12th member of the department to succumb to the virus.
Ford, a 27-year employee, made headlines a decade ago after she answered a 911 call and helped coach a Staten Island mother through the home birth of a child who had arrived sooner than expected.
“She was kind, respectful and believed in the job that we all do,” said Lillian Bonsignore, FDNY’s EMS chief. “All first responders put their lives on the line every day for the chance that they can save another’s life. And they accept the fact that, along the way, you give up your own. She understood that.”
The FDNY plans to vaccinate 450 employees per day at three vaccination sites, including the training academy on Randall’s Island where agency brass gathered Wednesday.
The vaccinations aren’t mandatory but are strongly encouraged, even for members of the department who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19. The first phase of vaccination includes essential health care workers, with firefighters scheduled to begin receiving their shots next week.
The unprecedented number of calls for service this year ranged from cardiac arrests to respiratory failures. On March 30, its single busiest day, the FDNY recorded 6,527 medical emergencies in the city.
Many could not be saved, and it fell to EMTs to deliver that news to family members.
“We need some type of normalcy,” said Capt. Mary Merced, another early recipient of the vaccine who hasn’t hugged her grandchildren since March. “This has gone on too long.”
As of this week, the FDNY had 600 employees on medical leave due to the virus. Far less discussed is the psychological impact the pandemic has wrought on the medical workers answering the call day after day — and fighting an invisible enemy.
“The toll that it’s taken on them, we can measure it in the number of counseling visits,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. “It’s been dreadful for them.”