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Why Some Health Care Workers Hesitate To Take Vaccine—And Why That's OK

Emily Bollinger
Only about 65% of Heritage Health employees have taken the COVID-19 vaccine. The senior care operation has close to 50 long-term care facilities, including Evergreen Village of Bloomington.

Health care workers were given top priority when COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out across the country. But not all who are eligible are jumping at the opportunity.

A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly a third (29%) of health care workers probably or definitely would not accept a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s slightly higher than the percentage of the general public that said they don’t plan to take it (27%).

Those figures are on par with what some central Illinois health care providers are seeing.

Ryan Taylor is assistant director of Green Tree Pharmacy that handles pharmacy services for close to 50 Heritage Health senior care facilities around Illinois, including in Bloomington, Chillicothe, El Paso and Minonk, among other locations.

Taylor said so far, only about 65% of Heritage Health staff have taken a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with about 90% of residents.

Taylor said some staff already have had COVID-19 and feel their natural antibodies may be enough. Others saw an outbreak come and go through their facility and feel prepared to handle another. Others may just be fearful,.

“Some have more radical thinking in terms of concerns that the vaccine may interact directly with their DNA, or they just don’t trust the government,” Taylor said. “Certainly, some even take a political stance with the vaccine.”

Heritage Health isn’t requiring staff to get the shot. Neither are some major hospitals like OSF HealthCare--at least for now.

OSF Healthcare has vaccinated just more than 10,000 employees to date, said spokesperson Libby Allison. There are more than 23,000 staff members system-wide.

“Because this vaccine is being administered under emergency use authorization, it is an opt-in versus required vaccination at this time,” Allison said in an email. “OSF will assess the progress of the vaccine and guidance around mandating this vaccination in the future.”

Interacting with health care workers who decide not to take the vaccine doesn’t sit well with some patients.

Denise Potter is a caregiver for her 29-year-old son, who has multiple medical conditions that put him at high risk for COVID-19.

Potter said she’s been informally surveying nurses during oncology and hematology appointments. She was disappointed and shocked when some nurses said they were holding off on getting the vaccine.

“If they’re dealing with high risk people--and people in general--you think that they’d, first, do no harm. You make sure that you’re healthy before you deal with the public,” Potter said. “It just feels a little backwards to me.”

She said it seems selfish for a patient-facing health care worker to turn down the opportunity, adding it's made her son more uneasy about going to appointments in the first place.

“It almost feels like they don’t really care about the patients, it’s just their own agenda,” Potter said. “I don’t understand it.”

But health care workers say, by and large, they’re supportive of COVID-19 vaccination efforts--and there’s more than one reason someone might reasonably turn it down for now.

Tory Dahmm is the quality improvement manager at Chestnut Family Health Center in Bloomington. She doesn’t work directly with patients, but was offered a COVID-19 vaccine through her employer--which she turned down.

Dahmm tested positive for COVID-19 in September. Her symptoms were mild and she was able to isolate without any other family members getting sick, she said.

“When I learned about the vaccine, I was curious and looked up to find out about, first, could you get the vaccine if you’d had COVID, which you can,” Dahmm said. “But secondly, how does that impact your ability to donate blood or plasma?”

She learned the Red Cross will accept blood donations from people after they've been vaccinated, but they won’t take convalescent plasma that contains antibodies that help fight off the virus.

Dahmm has been donating convalescent plasma since she recovered. She said each donation helps two or three COVID-19 in rough shape.

Dahmm said she’s monitoring her antibody levels and donating for as long as she can. Once that’s no longer an option, she’ll reconsider the vaccine.

“I’m doing all the things we’re supposed to do -- I’m wearing a face covering, I wash my hands, I’m staying socially distant. I’m doing the things to continue to keep myself safe and keep my family safe,” she said. “If I can help other people and make something good out of this situation, that’s really what I want.”

Dahmm said a number of folks she knows who work in health care got into the field because of their own experiences with illness, noting that could play a role in declining to take a vaccine. Others may be pregnant or breastfeeding. That’s something vaccine researchers are still studying.

Dr. Elaine Hardy, president of the Black Nurses Association of Central Illinois, said most of its members are rolling up their sleeves without much pause.

“I was actually just speaking with an affiliate member who said she’s going to go ahead and get it. She has a lot of allergies to antibiotics and different kinds of medications,” Hardy said. “But really looking at the implications for the health of other people--she has an elderly mother, she’ll be traveling--for her safety and others, she’s willing to take it.”

Black Americans are among the groups with the highest vaccine hesitancy rate, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data. About 35% surveyed said they probably or definitely wouldn’t take a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s despite them bearing the disproportionate burden of the pandemic.

Hardy said the hesitation is understandable, given the history of medical appartheid in this country. But she said the majority of hesitation is likely borne of misinformation--even among some health care workers.

Hardy said the key to improving vaccination rates is giving people the information they need to make informed decisions for their health and the health of those around them. She said requiring the vaccine for health care workers would be a step too far.

“Right now, there’s a shortage. You just don’t have enough health care providers in the hospitals, in the clinics. Just because we have a shortage, does that mean there should be exemptions? No, but mandating it, I don’t think is the right way to go.”

Maybe that means those who turn down the vaccine have to wear additional personal protective equipment that others do not, she said, or maybe they need to be tested more often. But she said the choice should remain theirs to make.

Gov. JB Pritzker and state health officials have not suggested the COVID-19 vaccine become mandatory. During a press conference this week, Pritzker said he’s not too worried about the vaccine acceptance rates-- among health care workers or otherwise.

“There’s vaccine hesitation among lots of people," he said. "Even among the most educated people, I have heard people say, ‘I want to see someone else get it first and see how they react’ or maybe, ‘I want to wait until someone gets their second dose and then I’ll go for my first dose.’”

Pritzker said vaccination rates are expected to improve as people become more comfortable with the idea and see others get the shots without complications.

Dahmm, the Chestnut Health employee who turned down the vaccine, echoed that sentiment.

“Give us a break. We’re all just doing our part to do what’s best for the community,” she said. “Saying the disparaging things to people who choose not to get the vaccine, especially if you don’t understand what the situation is, is not fair.”

Illinois is still in phase 1A of vaccine distribution that prioritizes health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. Phase 1B will extend the vaccine to essential workers in non-health settings and people over the age of 65. The state has not yet said when phase 1B will roll out. Health officials say it will be after all those eligible under 1A have been served.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.