A Florida fire captain and celebrated paramedic were arrested for allegedly conspiring to steal COVID-19 vaccine doses intended for first responders.
Joshua Colon, 31, a Polk County paramedic, allegedly confessed to covering up a vaccine theft by a senior firefighter aiming to inoculate his elderly mother, authorities said.
Colon, who was tasked with administering vaccines, allegedly took possession of three vials — containing 10 doses each — of the Moderna vaccine at a Davenport fire house on Jan. 6, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com.
He allegedly reported administering 27 doses, claiming three had been spoiled. Colon however, only provided 21 completed screening and consent forms, which didn’t match a log containing vaccine recipients, authorities said. The paperwork, which was riddled with misspelled names, missing birth dates, and disconnected phone numbers, caught the eye of a suspicious battalion chief, who reported him.
The paramedic allegedly confessed to detectives to falsifying the forms. He admitted to forging the signatures of two firefighters, and a third fictitious vaccine recipient, whose name he invented and signed for, authorities said.
Colon explained he created “dummy” email accounts for the firefighters and the fake vaccine recipient, which he then listed on their consent forms, authorities said. In an attempt to cover his tracks, he allegedly sent cryptic messages from the phony first responders’ accounts to his battalion chief, stating they’d been vaccinated.
However, when interviewed in person, the two actual firefighters listed on the forms confirmed they hadn’t received the vaccine, nor had they authorized Colon to fill out their screening forms. Both men said they'd met Colon while working at the Haines City Fire Department.
According to the arrest affidavit, Colon later told investigators that his supervisor, Capt. Anthony Damiano, had “joked” about stealing vaccines for his mother the day the doses disappeared. His superior ultimately pressured him into fudging vaccine logs, Colon said — and threatened to blackmail the “frightened” paramedic if he disobeyed.
“He was told by the supervisor to report those vaccines as waste,” the arrest affidavit alleged. “He refused to provide those vaccines to the supervisor, at which time the supervisor said he would tell those higher up in the chain of command that Colon was selling vaccines outside of work.”
The Florida fire captain later allegedly "ordered” Colon to take his lunch break. Upon returning, the paramedic told investigators he noticed that a trio of syringes containing the Moderna vaccine had vanished from the station’s refrigerator.
“He left to take a break, and when he came back, voila, the seal’s broken and the vaccinations are gone,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told reporters on Tuesday.
Colon insisted he forged the forms to “buy time” until he could confide in the proper authorities regarding the unaccounted for vaccines.
He has been charged with several counts of forgery, identity fraud, falsifying medical records, and official misconduct.
At the time of Colon’s arrest, Damiano, a deputy commander for Florida’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team, had been deployed to Los Angeles to oversee COVID-19 relief efforts.
During a recorded telephone call, Damiano admitted to swiping the vaccines and advised Colon to report that the syringes “fell off the desk at the station,” the affidavit alleged. The fire captain also revealed the missing doses were located in his SUV, which he’d parked at a friend’s home in St. Cloud, Florida.
Polk County deputies recovered two vaccine doses after executing a search warrant on the Damiano’s Mazda CX-9. One missing syringe remains unaccounted for, authorities said.
Damiano allegedly implicated himself in the vaccine theft plot in text messages he exchanged with the nurse who owned the property where his SUV was found.
“Maybe I should wipe the syringes in the bag down with alcohol prep to take my fingerprints off hehe," he allegedly texted her, according to a separate affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com.
The nurse also divulged that Damiano needed the vaccine for his “elderly” and “sick” mother, the affidavit stated.
The fire captain’s mother, who is on a waiting list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, later denied any knowledge of her son’s alleged plot to smuggle vaccines for her. She admitted her son was previously “working on getting her vaccinated,” but denied she’d received any doses from him.
Damiano turned himself into authorities on Wednesday. He was charged with petit theft and falsifying official records, according to online jail records. The 55-year-old, who refused to speak with detectives, posted a $1,250 bond, and was released.
Prior to being taken into custody, Damiano, a 17-year veteran of the county fire department, resigned with intent to retire prior to being taken into custody, according to a copy of his resignation letter, which Oxygen.com obtained from county officials.
“The bottom line is, Joshua tried to cover for the captain,” Grady said. “Joshua set up the circumstance for the vaccines to have been stolen. Had Joshua simply gone to his boss right then, he’d been the hero.”
Days before his arrest, Colon was awarded “Paramedic of the Year” by a cluster of civic groups that annually recognize first responders. The 31-year-old was recognized for his role in rescuing several burn victims from a fiery car wreck in 2019, officials said.
“He kept the patients from being burnt by handling the fire,” Chris Jonckheer, public information officer for Polk County Fire Rescue, told Oxygen.com.
Jonckheer described Colon’s alleged actions regarding the vaccine doses as “out of his character.”
“It doesn’t represent our agency,” he added.
Colon has also resigned from his post, officials said. He was first hired by Polk County Fire Rescue as a paramedic in 2016.
Fire department officials are now conducting a review of security procedures and “checks and balances,” related to the vaccine rollout.
“We’ll be taking a harder look at [the process] just to make sure,” Jonckheer said. “It’s extremely important for anything dealing with vaccines — that those things are tracked and kept accounted for.”
“This is another reason why it's important to set up a national vaccine tracking system that can track where each vaccine vial is going and where it is ultimately administered,” Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York, told Oxygen.com.
“This can help better understand the bottlenecks in the vaccine supply chains, where vaccines are getting hung up, how to resolve such bottlenecks as well as prevent theft and using either counterfeit vaccines or those that have been rendered ineffective because they have been exposed to higher temperatures or contaminated.”
As vaccines roll out nationally, and around the world, several people have also been accused of fraudulently obtaining their shots — or contaminating and destroying doses altogether.
Earlier this month, Rodney Baker, a wealthy Canadian casino mogul, and his wife, allegedly flew from Vancouver, British Columbia to a remote village near the Alaskan border. There, the couple allegedly posed as motel workers and tried jumping the line at a mobile clinic that was immunizing indigenous elders. The couple was charged with violating travel restrictions and self-isolation emergency measures.
In December, Wisconsin pharmacist Steven Brandenburg allegedly sabotaged hundreds of COVID-19 doses he mistakenly believed would alter his patients’ DNA, police said.
“This also shows why vaccine roll-out needs to be well-organized,” Lee added. “If it isn't clear who should and should not be receiving vaccines now, what are the priority groups, and how these will be enforced, secondary markets could emerge.”
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