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Many health care workers are refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine

Black Americans and the COVID-19 vaccine
Convincing Black Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine 08:52

As many Americans scramble to arrange appointments for their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, some health care workers are declining to be inoculated.

A significant percentage of doctors, nurses, EMS workers, support staff and other health care employees said they turned down the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines over concerns they may not be safe or effective, according to a recent survey by Surgo Ventures, a non-profit group focused on solving health and social problems. Others in the health field worried the development of the vaccine had been rushed.

"We have a lot more work to do to get health care workers to take the vaccine. Simply making it available is not enough — we have to take a more precise, targeted approach to reach different segments of population to overcome hesitancy," Hannah Kemp, director of programs for Surgo Ventures, told CBS MoneyWatch.

That hesitancy can be surprisingly stubborn to overcome. Surgo polled more than 2,500 U.S. health care workers to assess their comfort in getting vaccinated. At the time of the survey, administered from December 17 to 30, 53% of respondents had been offered the vaccine. Of those workers, 15%, or almost 200 people polled, said they had refused to take the vaccine, with many claiming there is insufficient evidence the treatments are effective, despite assurances otherwise by federal and state health agencies and major pharmaceutical companies.
Another 24% cited personal safety concerns, while 16% said they thought the approval process was too rushed. 

With the death toll from COVID-19 approaching 400,000, the findings underline a key challenge as the incoming Biden administration and states around the country try to accelerate what has been a bumpy initial rollout of the vaccines.

"If health care workers are hesitant and we need to take specific efforts to overcome that, we are going to have a huge challenge in convincing the general population to take the vaccine in the U.S.," Kemp said. 

"So much is unknown"

Jessica Outten, a nurse practitioner specializing in pediatric neurosurgery at Children's Hospital Colorado in Denver, is one health care worker who is opting against getting vaccinated for now, saying that people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 should have priority.

"It's our choice, and at this time I am going to let other people who are immunocompromised, elderly and who really want it go first," Outten, 38, told CBS MoneyWatch.   

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But Outten also admits being in no hurry to get her shots because of concerns about the safety of the vaccine, expressing confidence that her diligent use of personal protective equipment will keep her safe. The Food and Drug Administration authorized both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for emergency use in under a year. Developing vaccines typically takes a decade. 

"So much is unknown about the vaccine's long-term effects and with the virus, and I'm pretty conservative. I make sure all my ducks are in a row before I do anything — I'm not very adventurous," she said, noting that some of her co-workers have had modestly more severe reactions to their initial dose.

A legacy of racism in health care

Black health care workers refused the vaccines at a significantly higher rate than average, Surgo's survey found: 35% turned down the opportunity to get their first dose. That compared with 12% to 14% for other racial groups. Women and Republicans were also less likely to accept the vaccine, according to the survey. 

Researchers weren't surprised to find higher resistance among Black employees in health care, pointing to a historic distrust of the medical community by many African Americans. Such attitudes, while not universal, are rooted in past abuses including experimental operations on enslaved Black women in the 1840s as well as the infamous Tuskegee Institute experiments in the 1930s that examined the progression of syphilis in Black men. 

"In the African American community, the Tuskegee experiment still resonates to this day," said Dr. Emmanuel Peprah, an assistant professor of global health at New York University. 

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Workers in health care support roles who deal with patients, such as phlebotomists who draw blood for tests, were also more hesitant to take the vaccine.

"Among some health care workers there is low understanding overall of how vaccines work, so it would be beneficial to couple conversations explaining the COVID-19 vaccine with overall conversations about how vaccines work in general," Kemp said. 

Some facilities, including Houston Methodist, a leading hospital in Texas, is offering its 26,000 workers a $500 bonus if they take the vaccine, to persuade those who may be reluctant to sign up.  

Other organizations aren't giving individuals a choice. Trinitas School of Nursing in New Jersey is ordering students in its program to get the COVID-19 vaccine or else withdraw, according to CBS New York. 

Leading from the front

Another worrisome finding: Aides and other workers at long-term care facilities including nursing homes — where more than 100,000 residents and staff are believed to have died of COVID-19 — said they were less likely to get the vaccine than hospital workers, according to the survey. 

Forty-one percent of workers in these types of facilities believed only "some" or "a few" of their colleagues would get the vaccine, compared to 25% of hospital workers, Surgo found. Such numbers jibe with other reports indicating reluctance among long-term care workers. Roughly 60% of workers in Ohio nursing homes chose not to get vaccinated, according to state data released in December.

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Kemp suggested that leaders in nursing homes, assisted living centers and other eldercare facilities could set an example by getting vaccinated and sharing their experiences. 

That was the approach embraced by Rev. Dr. Derrick DeWitt, director and chief financial officer of the Maryland Baptist Aged Home in Baltimore, Maryland. Some of his staffers and residents didn't know much about the COVID-19 vaccine, so he got the shots to reassure them it was safe, he told CBS MoneyWatch. 

"It was really challenging getting people to take the vaccine, but I took it first to try to encourage people to do it, and I assured them I had no residual effects from taking the vaccine," he said. "More people came around after that."

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