Polk County paramedic allowed fire captain to take COVID-19 vaccines, sheriff says

Polk County Fire Rescue captain faces charges

A Polk County paramedic is accused of stealing highly sought-after coronavirus vaccine vials, according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

POLK COUNTY, Fla. – A Polk County paramedic is accused of stealing highly sought-after coronavirus vaccine doses, according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

According to the sheriff’s office, a paramedic was arrested and accused of allowing three doses of the Moderna vaccine in his care to be taken by a supervisor and then falsifying documents to cover up the theft.

Joshua Colon, 31, told detectives he was directed by his supervisor, a 17-year veteran fire captain who turned himself in on Wednesday, to take a break so the syringes with the drug could be taken.

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Judd said Colon was assigned doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that he was supposed to give to other firefighters but there were some discrepancies on three different forms for the doses. The forms were missing information including dates of birth for the people he gave the shots to, according to the sheriff.

A battalion chief attempted to verify who the vaccine shots were given to but after speaking with one person named on the forms, a former firefighter, he learned that person did not receive the vaccine from Colon, according to the sheriff.

Polk County Fire Rescue contacted the sheriff’s office after determining the doses were not given to firefighters and were missing.

“Ultimately, we met Mr. Colon at the office of his lawyer, and he said, ‘Hey I want to totally cooperate. I have embarrassed the fire service and I falsified the paperwork. I used two false names,” Judd said Colon told authorities.

The sheriff, along with Polk County Fire Chief Robert Weech described Tuesday during a news conference how authorities learned of the missing doses.

“We had some discrepancies in the paperwork we couldn’t explain or get to the bottom of. We contacted the authorities and that’s why we’re here today,” Weech said.

Colon informed investigators he was approached by Capt. Anthony Damiano, who asked him for some of the vaccine for his mother.

Judd said Colon initially rebuffed him but after several requests the paramedic left three syringes with three doses of the vaccine in a special refrigerator and sealed it. Damiano then told him to take a break and Colon left. When he came back the seals were broken and the vaccine shots were gone, according to the sheriff.

“But there was a reckoning day because he has to have paperwork for every dosage, and now there’s three doses, for which he has no paperwork,” Judd said. “And that’s why he made up the stories and the false documents that he did.”

Authorities had Colon call Damiano to verify this story and the captain said the doses were in a cooler at a friend’s house in St. Cloud. Polk and Osceola authorities retrieved the vials from the home.

Polk County Fire Rescue Capt. Anthony Damiano. (Image: PCSO) (WKMG 2020)

“We recovered two doses. We still don’t know where the one syringe in one dose is, but we recovered two doses,” Judd said.

The vaccines that sat in a car for two weeks were no longer viable when they were recovered.

Damiano was still employed with Polk County but that could change soon after he arrives back in town, according to Weech. Judd said the captain was driving back from Las Vegas and arrived Tuesday night.

Damiano turned himself into the Polk County Jail Wednesday afternoon, according to the sheriff’s office.

“You can run, but you can’t hide. The deal’s over, you’re going to jail ... for being a crook, for stealing,” Judd said Tuesday. “You’re also going to jail because you abused your authority.”

Colon resigned from the department Monday. Weech said it does not appear Colon benefitted from the stolen vaccine at all.

Polk County Fire Rescue paramedic arrested

Sheriff Grady Judd, along with PCFR Fire Chief Robert Weech and Deputy County Manager Joe Halman, is giving details about the arrest of Polk County Fire Rescue paramedic Joshua Colon in the theft of three Moderna vaccine doses. Click here to read the news release: https://tinyurl.com/y549xyhx Sheriff Judd also discussed two other, unrelated arrests, at the end of this video. Click here to read those releases: https://tinyurl.com/y3mn7yko https://tinyurl.com/y62fnsvr

Posted by Polk County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday, January 26, 2021

“He was paramedic of the year just recently, we honored his accomplishments. He worked very, very hard,” Weech said of the now former paramedic. “I consider this to be out of character for him but a serious discrepancy. I’m confident in saying he made some severe mistakes.”

Now that he has returned, Damiano is facing charges of theft and official misconduct, according to Judd. The captain was formerly a reserve deputy with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Weech said Damiano has been employed with the county fire rescue for 17 years and as a captain for 14. He’s assigned to special operations.

This isn’t the first reported theft of the coveted vaccine in Florida.

Two vials of the vaccine disappeared from a mental health hospital in Chattahoochee earlier this month, according to CBS station WCTV. Chattahoochee Police told WCTV the vials were worth $5,000 a piece and were taken from the hospital’s medical storage unit.

Both Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are temperature sensitive.

Moderna vials should be stored between -13 and 5 degrees F before they are used or between 36 and 46 degrees up to 30 days prior to first use. Stealing vials would also require proper refrigeration equipment to prevent the drug from going to waste.

About the Author:

Emilee is a digital journalist for News 6 and ClickOrlando.com, where she writes about space and Central Florida news. Previously, Emilee was a space writer and web editor for the Orlando Sentinel and a producer at the Naples Daily News.