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story.lead_photo.caption Little Rock Fire Department Battalion Chief Naim Salaam, right, gets a dose of the Pfizer covid vaccine Tuesday Jan. 5, 2021 in Little Rock from Brittany Marsh, pharmacist and owner at the Cornerstone Pharmacy on Rodney Parham Road, as the first Little Rock fire and police department personnel got vaccinations. See more photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal) - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

The initial covid-19 vaccinations for first responders in Little Rock were administered Tuesday morning to two longtime employees of the city's police and fire departments.

Battalion Chief Naim Salaam of the Little Rock Fire Department and officer Timothy Pope of the Little Rock Police Department were inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the Little Rock Fire Department Training and Support Services Complex on Murray Street.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's administration opted to move police and firefighters to the initial phase of the state's vaccine distribution plan, known as Phase 1A, alongside health care workers, and the residents and staff members of long-term-care facilities.

The push to inoculate first responders in Arkansas at the earliest opportunity marks a departure from federal guidance on how to distribute the limited doses of the covid-19 vaccines.

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Salaam, 48, has worked for the Fire Department for 26 years. He thanked officials at the city and the Fire Department for making the vaccine available and said he was happy to be the first firefighter to officially receive a dose.

He said he believes the vaccine will provide a level of protection to "keep myself safe, keep my co-workers safe, my family safe, as well as the community that we serve."

Pope, 51, told reporters that he did research on the vaccine and concluded "it definitely couldn't hurt."

He said he believes officers should have been in the first group of inoculations regardless because of their close, hands-on interactions with the public.

With the time frame police have to work with, sometimes they do not have time to wear a mask or wear gloves, Pope said, "so I think this vaccine can help us be safer."

The patrolman has worked for the Police Department for 24 years.

Brittany Marsh, owner of Cornerstone Pharmacy at Rodney Parham, said her pharmacy is scheduled to vaccinate Fire Department employees in the first part of the week and later give injections to officials at the Police Department, 911 center and police headquarters.

She said the pharmacy plans to administer about 700 vaccines to first responders.

"We want everyone to get their vaccine. It's so important. It's important to health-care workers and first responders, as you're seeing," Marsh said. "We're having great turnouts. Very few reactions at all, if any."

During the governor's weekly covid-19 briefing Tuesday, Hutchinson said recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention originally listed first responders as part of the first phase of vaccine distribution, a recommendation the CDC later changed, he said.

"We believe that they ought to stay in [Phase] 1A because they are putting themselves at risk; they are our first responders, and our initial planning included our first responders in 1A," Hutchinson said.

CDC recommendations say firefighters and police should receive the vaccine in the Phase 1B wave with other front-line essential workers in sectors such as education, food, and agriculture and manufacturing.

At the briefing, Department of Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero said the addition of first responders to the first phase of vaccinations "fits Arkansas because we are a rural state."

Romero argued that police and firefighters in Arkansas often arrive at an accident first, unlike a metropolitan center where ambulance or rescue crews might arrive first.

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Other Central Arkansas agencies will begin arranging vaccinations for their officers in coming weeks.

Officer Joe Green, spokesman for the North Little Rock Police Department, said the department will begin scheduling its officers for vaccinations next week at two different pharmacies.

"Next week, officers will call and schedule their vaccines," Green said. "Then, they'll go in and get it. I think they have to be monitored for 15 minutes for any aftereffects. Then they can go back on duty or back home or wherever."

Pulaski County deputies may have to wait longer to be vaccinated, according to spokesman Lt. Robert Garrett.

"We have reached out to a few different local pharmacies to have our testing done," Garrett said. "Right now they're compiling the numbers, so we're hoping it will be in a couple of weeks."

While officers are encouraged to get the vaccine, spokesmen from the departments said the departments cannot force anyone to take the vaccine or take any action as a result of an employee refusing the vaccine.

"It's voluntary with our agency," Green said. "It's not mandatory by any means."

Information for this article was contributed by William Sanders of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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