It was all very ceremonial. It was all very upbeat. It was all very congratulatory. But, for two, seated inconspicuously in the audience, it was all very real.
The occasion was Governor Mark R. Warner signing legislation adopted by the last session of the Virginia General Assembly to protect the state's first responders from having to justify how they contracted air-borne and blood-borne diseases on the job as firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, and others who protect the community.
Governor Warner visited Fire Station Number Nine in Mount Vernon on June 12, to sign House Bill 757 which provides workers' compensation to those who contract such diseases as Hepatitis C. In the rather sterile words of the bill it amends section 65.2-402.1 "Presumption as to death or disability from infectious disease."
There is no "presumption" for Michael Weldon or Willie Sheard. They have Hepatitis C. Their careers as firefighters or first responders is over. Weldon is 42 and Sheard is 46.
Both played a major role in getting this bill through the General Assembly by sacrificing their anonymity and testifying in behalf of passage.
"BASICALLY I TOLD THEM [the General Assembly] the truth. I could have only gotten this through the job. We traced it back to the early 90's. But, I wasn't diagnosed until 2000," Weldon explained. "I did 18 months of treatment. It has the same effect as chemotherapy. Then I went into remission."
The treatment consisted of injecting himself with a high potency drug every week to arrest the incurable disease known as Hepatitis C. It was only identified within the last decade and has no known cure. It is transmitted through blood or bodily fluid interaction.
Before the passage and signing of H757, those first responders who contracted the diseases were required to prove they had done so on the job. This legislation removes that requirement and entitles "Persons covered under this section who test positive for exposure
to the enumerated occupational diseases ... shall ... be entitled to make claim for medical benefits ..."
WELDON'S REMISSION has now ended, he related. He now must decide if he is going back on the medication or face the alternative.
"It's comparable to having the worst case of flu you've ever had in your life and then getting hit on the head by a hammer," he explained. "I'd give myself a shot on Sunday night and it would be Thursday before I could really function again. I'm debating if I want to go through that again. But what's the alternative?"
Mike Weldon had been a firefighter for 20 years and three months. A resident of Centreville he had been assigned to Station 20, Gunston, when he was forced into retirement by the disease.
Willie Sheard was only diagnosed in November, 2000, as a result of a routine physical. He has been a firefighter for 23 years. Four of those years were spent at Station Number Nine in Mount Vernon where he sat last Wednesday watching the governor sign the legislation he also had come forward to openly support.
"As a paramedic I was constantly exposed to victims' bodily fluids. I got at least six contaminated needle sticks over the years," said Sheard of Lorton. "Everyone in the department who has contracted it has at least 18 years of service. It has a very long gestation period."
Married with one son and a grandson, Sheard retired on disability April 19. He has not started treatment because there is not enough of the drug to go around at this juncture.
"I'm on the waiting list for the medication. Hopefully, I can help someone else down the road," Sheard said.
BOTH MEN WERE recognized during the ceremony by the bill's chief sponsor Delegate Kristen J. Amundson (D-44). "Too often America's first responders become the first victims. Each day they are subject to far greater hazards from disease than the crisis they are answering," Amundson said.
"This was a very hard bill to get through the General Assembly. It would not have happened without the support of the firefighters," she emphasized. "Firefighters are the best help when shepherding a bill through the legislature."
Fairfax County Fire Chief Edward L. Stinnette, noted, "This bill protects our public safety employees everyday on the job. It allows them to focus on what they do. They will no longer be forced to worry about a burden of proof if contracting these diseases."
R. Michael Mohler, President, Virginia Professional Firefighters, praised Gov. Warner for keeping his campaign promise that if elected governor "firefighters would have a seat at the table."
He noted that nine members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department have been diagnosed with Hep C, as it is commonly called, thus far.
Mohler and John Niemiec, health and safety advocate of IAFF Local 2086, were the catalysts that brought forth the initiative for H757 after eight local firefighters tested positive for Hep C. They were joined on Wednesday by Pat Morrison, President, Local 2068. Eighteen other states have adopted similar legislation.
"I'm here to express my gratitude to those that helped get this through the legislature," Mohler said. "Mark Warner spent three years, before he was elected, learning about our profession and he has delivered."
Mohler emphasized that, "Unfortunately you have to have people die to get attention to a dire need. The drug therapy is very debilitating and will not allow them to perform their duties as a firefighter.
"This legislation will provide workman's compensation protection if they [first responders] contract certain infectious diseases. It will put in force a lot of programs we don't now have."
PRIOR TO THE actual signing, in the packed Station 9 vehicle bays, Gov. Warner said, "My administration has made a commitment to enforce public safety. My hope is that this new found appreciation of firefighters will not be short lived. You have made our lives better."
In addition to H757, Warner also signed H814 which provides, "No person shall be required by an employer to abstain or refrain from membership in, or holding office in, any labor union or labor organization as a condition of employment or continuation of employment."
The primary sponsor of H814, Delegate James F. Almand (D-47) noted in his remarks that "Firefighters and others will no longer be forced to choose between a career promotion and serving their union." Amundson and Delegate Marian Van Landingham (D-45) were also sponsors of this legislation.
"These two pieces of legislation move our commitment to our public safety employees forward. And, these two legislators (Amundson and Almand) were really the leaders in getting them passed," Warner emphasized.
In addition to Hep C, the H757 legislation addresses a variety of
contagious diseases such as meningococcal meningitis, tuberculosis or HIV which can result in "total or partial disability." It applies to all public safety employees in a variety of state government departments.
H757 also addressed the requirement for "documentation" of potential exposure. "For purposes of this section, an occupational exposure occurring on or after July 1, 2002, shall be deemed documented if the person ... gave notice, written or otherwise, of the occupational exposure ... and an occupational exposure occurring prior to July 1, 2002 shall be deemed documented without regard to whether the person gave notice..."
This, in effect, negates the requirement that the victim of such exposure prove that the disease is a result of exposure on the job. The Workman's Compensation coverage will be available to them throughout the term of their treatment.