But before they said farewell, they had one request: Wait to remove him from the machines until after his 61st birthday.
So on July 14, 2020, his friends and family threw what they figured would be his final party. Fellow firefighters, organized by their chief, recorded video messages in which they read their “Squadfather” a Bible verse, urged him to get better, told him he’s a “fighter.” It played on loop in his hospital room as Collins’s family prepared for his death.
The next day, Collins’s doctor walked into his room and said his name — and the firefighter opened his eyes.
He tracked his doctor as he walked around the room. He wiggled his toes.
Nobody had to say goodbye.
Now Collins, who has spent 4½ months in and out of the hospital rehabbing a body damaged by the virus that nearly killed him, has become a sort of spokesman urging fellow first responders to get the coronavirus vaccine.
As his department began rolling out the vaccine, he had heard skeptics were forgoing the protection. Collins said he was worried for his friends, first responders in the largest combination municipal fire department in the country who have been confronting this virus for nearly a year in the county hit harder than any other in Maryland. He told his fire chief he wanted to help.
“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to any of my brothers and sisters,” Collins said, his voice cracking, in a fire department video that has been viewed more than 40,000 times on Facebook. “Nobody deserves that.”
“Please,” he said, “get the shots.”
In the Washington region and across the nation, thousands of front-line public safety workers — firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers — are being offered first access to the coronavirus vaccine as the country continues to navigate a host of economic, political, and health and safety unknowns.
Since the pandemic reached the United States last winter, first responders have been transporting people with the coronavirus to the hospital, entering infected homes with only the protection of masks and their own immune systems.
“It’s just a sense of hope . . . We are coming through this, we can see the end of the tunnel,” Prince George’s Fire Chief Tiffany Green said of the vaccine. “The more front-line workers stepping up to get the vaccine, the more we can keep the community safe.”
After returning home on Sept. 1, Collins spent months recovering. At first, he could not walk or stand. He has had to wear a brace on his right wrist, and his left hand is constantly numb. And it’s still difficult for him to breathe.
This ongoing struggle, he said in an interview, is why he called Green and told her about his mission to help ensure his fellow firefighters got the coronavirus vaccination.
In a year defined by historic racial justice demonstrations that have harshly scrutinized the systemic challenges of American policing, law enforcement leaders say they are eager to get their forces vaccinated so officers can resume relationship-building meetings with their communities.
“People are really looking forward to the future,” said Prince George’s Sheriff Melvin C. High, who was vaccinated this month and encouraged his department in a staff meeting to also get the shot.
“Everybody is looking forward to the time when we can have our social activities again, and be present with one another and actually see people face-to-face,” the sheriff said.
Both the sheriff’s office and Prince George’s County Police Department began vaccinating their forces this month on a voluntary basis.
Interim police chief Hector Velez, who has been shepherding the department since last summer, was recently vaccinated. During the pandemic, the department has been forced to suspend regular coffee meetings with residents, cancel in-person events and ceremonies and modify the way even the most basic tasks are conducted, such as investigating homicide scenes or interviewing witnesses.
“Our officers miss having that person-to-person interaction,” Velez said. “I can tell you personally, I prefer to be out having one-on-one conversations and meetings.”
The Prince George’s Fire Department, which is made up of about 2,000 career and volunteer firefighters and EMS, has been vaccinating its employees since Jan. 4. The county health department asked Green’s paramedics to become vaccinators and “we stepped right up to do that,” the chief said.
Green received the shot first on New Year’s Eve, and more than 50 percent of the department has been vaccinated in the weeks since. She said she knew it would be her responsibility to lead by example and to ensure that her people felt informed about what they were putting into their bodies. The department has distributed fact sheets about the dosages and side effects and has worked to counter people’s fears with information.
“We had a few that were a little reluctant,” Green said. “Some people just had to go home and talk to their family members.”
Green said just over 150 people in her department have contracted the coronavirus since March — though it’s unclear how many got sick on the job. The department has transported more than 7,000 people who were suspected of having the virus and another 1,000 who had tested positive.
It was a weekend when Collins called her cellphone to offer his advocacy. His drive to help protect his colleagues “speaks to who he is as a person, his character,” Green said.
Collins said he tested positive for the virus in mid-June. He tried to make an appointment with his primary-care doctor, but the office was booked out a week. He got sicker and decided to drive himself to the hospital but made it no farther than his front porch. He sat down to call 911 for the first time in his life.
The last thing he remembers is arriving at the hospital, and then nothing else until late July.
It was, he said, “the most horrific experience of my life.”
“I’m a firefighter, an old-school firefighter, and the men and women both in my department and all over the world are my brothers and sisters, and I’m concerned about their safety,” Collins said. “I just want people to listen.”
Green had been by his family’s side throughout his illness, keeping the department apprised of his condition.
“Steve is a fighter, but it was a struggle,” Green said. “To watch him go through that was heartbreaking.”
By his birthday, she said, they had prepared for the worst. She planned to be there when they removed him from the ventilator.
But he pulled through.
“It’s personal for us,” the fire chief said. “We cannot have another situation like that.”