Nearly a month into the COVID-19 vaccination process, we are learning more about who’s taking the drug and who’s not. Public health professionals say they are surprised by the number of nurses and providers that say they are “vaccine hesitant” for one reason or another. Some of the most at-risk providers are turning down their dose of the vaccine, even with priority access.
According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 29% of healthcare workers fall into this category, which is even higher than that of the general population (27%).
The FDA says healthcare workers should be at the front of the line when it comes to getting the vaccine, so what happens if too many people opt out?
Worse Than Expected Participation Rates
Since the initial rollout out of the vaccine, there have been several reports of lower-than-expected participation rates among frontline healthcare workers.
Southern California remains one of the worst hotspots in the country. Yet, at St. Elizabeth Community Hospital in Tehama County, fewer than half of the 700 hospital workers eligible for the vaccine were willing to take the shot when it first became available. We are seeing similar scenarios play out across the state.
At Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, one in five frontline nurses and doctors declined the shot. Across L.A. County, between 20% to 40% of high-priority workers opted out as well.
In Riverside County, so many providers have declined their shot (around 50%) that public health officials are meeting to discuss what to do with all the unused doses.
Why High-Priority Providers Are Saying No
Even though the scientific evidence makes it clear that both COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, many providers say they would rather not take the shot for a variety of reasons.
April Lu, a 31-year-old nurse at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, says she is declining the shot because she is currently six months pregnant. “I’m choosing the risk — the risk of having COVID, or the risk of the unknown of the vaccine. I think I’m choosing the risk of COVID. I can control that and prevent it a little by wearing masks, although not 100% for sure,” Lu said.
However, the CDC says pregnant women should receive the vaccine and that the drug is unlikely to pose a risk to either mother or child.
Other nurses and providers are choosing not to get the drug because they think they can survive the pandemic without getting COVID-19 at all.
“I feel people think, ‘I can still make it until this ends without getting the vaccine,'” Lu added.
Public health officials are laying the blame on poor public messaging, particularly at the federal level.
“It’s certainly disappointing,” said Sal Rosselli, the president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. “But it’s not shocking, given what the federal administration has done over the past 10 months…Trust science. It’s about science, and reality, and what’s right.”
Dr. Medell Briggs-Malonson, an emergency medicine physician at UCLA Health, got her shot, but she’s seen the distrust in her colleagues.
“Even the name, Operation Warp Speed, draws some concern for people about the rush to push it through,” said Dr. Briggs-Malonson.
Looking at the results of the Kaiser Family Foundation, some providers who expressed distrust in the vaccine say they are worried about potential side effects, others don’t trust federal officials to make sure the drug is safe, and many providers believe the threat of COVID-19 has been exaggerated, despite the fact that nearly 350,000 Americans have died of the disease.
Other participants expressed frustration over having to take the drug first, a status that’s often associated with experimentation.
Should We Be Concerned?
Yes. If too few people get vaccinated, the pandemic could stretch on indefinitely, leading to more infection and economic instability.
As Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch puts it, “Our ability as a society to get back to a higher level of functioning depends on having as many people protected as possible.”
Some providers who have taken the vaccine are using the experience to encourage others to do the same in the form of social media videos, webinars, and public awareness campaigns.
Anthony Wilkinson, an intensive care nurse at Orange County Hospital, has been updating his family and friends on Facebook on how he’s feeling after receiving the vaccine. “People are scared for me. I can understand why. It’s new and no one wants to be the first,” he said.
Some facilities have started returning unused doses of the vaccine, so they can get them to people who want to take them. Administrators are also keeping their options open, considering some nurses and providers may need more time to decide whether they want to participate.