Fears Prompt Some Medical Workers to Balk at Getting the Vaccine

Some nurses and emergency-response workers have expressed reluctance to take the new coronavirus vaccine, a reflection of unease that U.S. officials hope to overcome as they ramp up the nationwide immunization effort.

For months, surveys showed widespread skepticism about the vaccine after the Trump administration’s push to get it out before the November election. Public-health authorities say people’s concerns have eased since then, but this week’s launch of vaccinations made it clear that some health-care workers and first responders remain unwilling to get the shot.

While there are always vaccine detractors, hesitance among members of the medical community could deter the general public from getting it despite the safety record and more than 90% efficacy rate of the initial vaccines. Of the more than 20,000 trial participants who received Pfizer Inc.’s, serious side effects were rare.

Fears Prompt Some Medical Workers to Balk at Getting the Vaccine

In many cases, health-care workers cheered the arrival of the first doses to combat a virus that has killed more than 308,000 Americans. And the first shots are being given as the U.S. continues to set death records -- more than 3,000 a day.

Still, some younger medical workers are reluctant because of widespread but unfounded rumors about possible side effects such as infertility. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend Covid-19 vaccines should not be withheld from pregnant women. The group suggests doctors talk to women about the risk of Covid-19 and the safety of the vaccine for the pregnant patient and the fetus. Pregnant patients are at a higher risk for developing severe illness from Covid-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Others are skittish about the historic speed of the vaccine’s arrival. Pfizer’s vaccine -- and one made by Moderna Inc. that is expected to win U.S. authorization as soon as Friday -- were developed in a matter of months following the start of the pandemic early this year. The government’s Operation Warp Speed program helped speed up delivery of vaccines and treatments for Covid-19

Vaccine development typically takes much more time -- licensing can often take 10 years or longer, according to the CDC. The Food and Drug Administration has rigorous standards for approval of vaccines, since they are given widely to healthy people.

Allergic Reactions

Concerns were fueled this week by reports that two people in Alaska who received the vaccine suffered rare allergic reactions, which have also been seen in recipients in the U.K. Pfizer and U.S. drug regulators are now revising information for use and monitoring of the company’s Covid-19 vaccine developed with BioNTech SE.

A national survey by the American Nurses Foundation in October found nurses almost evenly split when asked if they’d voluntarily be vaccinated against the virus, with 36% saying no, 34% saying yes, and 31% unsure. A push by medical groups -- including a Twitter hashtag, #IGotTheShot, where health-care workers are posting their pictures -- appears to improving such numbers.

Riverside Health System in Virginia has been regularly surveying its workers on whether they would take it. Acceptance has grown as more data have become available, said Riverside’s Chief Pharmacy Officer Cindy Williams. Since the last survey about two weeks ago, some people who indicated they would not take a vaccine have since emailed asking if they could change their answer to yes, Williams said in an interview Wednesday.

‘Too Fast’

But work remains to be done. At Loretto Hospital in Chicago, where the city’s first Covid-19 vaccine was administered on Tuesday, 40% of the staff do not plan to get it, according to a survey this month.

Sherrie Burch, 56, a ward clerk at Loretto, is baffled by how quickly the Covid-19 vaccine was developed, given how long medical developments typically take. And that makes her nervous. “It just happened too fast for me,” Burch said, adding that her children, grandchildren and 76-year-old mother aren’t planning to get it either. “It’s the fear of the unknown.”

Burch wants more details about the vaccine’s research and longer-term side effects. She plans to wait at least a couple of months to see how co-workers respond to the shot. Until then, she’ll keep masking, distancing and hand washing.

Some nurses, respiratory therapists and technicians at Loretto also are opting out, said Nikhila Juvvadi, the hospital’s chief clinical officer who was the first person to administer the vaccine in Chicago. At a staff town-hall meeting on Wednesday, she explained the science of how the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine works.

Such vaccines do not contain the live virus that causes Covid-19 and therefore do not pose a risk of exposing someone to the virus, according to the CDC. Instead, they contain genetic instructions that teach cells how to produce antigens that trigger an immune response.

Boosting Acceptance

Juvvadi is hoping the acceptance rate rises at the hospital with more outreach. “We want to listen,” said Juvvadi, who is among leaders at the safety-net hospital trying to answer questions and encouraging physicians to show they are getting the shot.

She made one convert this week: Latanya Holmes, who cooks and delivers food for patients at the hospital. Holmes, 36, was nervous about potential side effects and stopped Juvvadi in the cafeteria to discuss her concerns. Now she plans to get the vaccine, but she understands the hesitation. “I think it’s the lack of knowledge,” Holmes said.

Workers in other parts of the country are also concerned.

In Maine, about 40% of staff and 30% of residents at the state’s larger nursing homes appear unwilling to get the vaccine, the Maine Health Care Association found after an “informal discussion” with the operators.

“Without official polling, it’s hard to know how accurate a picture this paints, and we fully expect these percentages to increase with greater education and awareness,” said Nadine Grosso, the organization’s director of communications. “Ultimately, we know that vaccination is key to safely reopening our long term care facilities.”

Firefighter Fears

A significant number of New York firefighters are also reluctant. Anthony Almojera, a lieutenant paramedic who’s vice president of FDNY’s EMS Officers Union Local 3621 said about 30% of his members resist getting the vaccine, judging from group chats and social-media monitoring.

Five of his union members have died from Covid-19 this year, Almojera said, and about three dozen have been disabled long term, including two at home on oxygen. Almojera said he’s going to take it “to protect myself and people around me, and I like to travel. And I know proof of vaccination is going to be a standard for traveling internationally going forward.”

He said the biggest concern is with the speed of the vaccine’s approval: “Who wants to be a guinea pig?” Almojera tries to allay union members’ concerns by noting that the Covid vaccine is unique. “It’s been worked on 24 hours a day for six or seven months with almost unlimited resources,” Almojera said.

Still, some remain unpersuaded. Jonathan Damato, 41, a New York City paramedic for 21 years, is not an anti-vaxxer. He gets an annual flu shot, and he trusts the life-saving potential of vaccines against measles, mumps, polio. His station does about 50 or 60 Covid ambulance runs a week -- people presenting high fevers and shortness of breath.

“I know the virus is real,” said Damato, who has a 4-year-old son with health issues. But “until I see that it’s actually safe for myself or my kids to take, I’m not going to take it.”

For others, braving a poke in the arm could help make the job less stressful. At the fire department in Billings, Montana, there’s “a slight bit of apprehension, but nobody that I’ve heard from is refusing it,” said Cameron Abell of Local 521 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “It’s tough wearing a mask and distancing in a job that we really rely on each other socially.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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