LONG ISLAND, NY — Long after nursing school ended Rachel H. continued studying, always staying on top of the latest studies and clinical trials in the medical field. It didn’t matter if the material concerned a controversial state-of-the-art medical treatment or a new medication. She has been following the progress of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and she is not willing to roll up her sleeve so soon due to concerns over long-term effects, despite the fear of contracting COVID-19.
“There’s no data on it. You are going to be the data — that’s the only thing,” said Rachel, a Suffolk County resident who works in an out-patient facility for mental health. She has declined to be identified for privacy reasons. “It’s a fear everyone has. You get [COVID-19] and you get sick.”
The lack of data for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccine concerns Rachel, so she plans to give the vaccine development some more time and she will possibly consider Johnson & Johnson’s forthcoming version of the vaccine because she has a friend who is involved with the clinical trial.
“I would be more open to that because it is more traditional,” she said, noting that Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is similar to that of the influenza vaccine, which is adjusted yearly to fight a different strain of the flu.
Pfizer’s phase 3 vaccine trial, which had 43,448 participants, was “well-tolerated and demonstrated vaccine efficacy of 95% against COVID-19,” the company said in a news release last month.
Another concern for Rachel is that the current vaccines available in the United States use mRNA technology, which does not contain a live or weakened virus, but instead stimulates the body to create a protein to increase immunity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She still considers the vaccines experimental because they were rolled out so quickly under emergency approvals by the Federal Drug Administration, but she says that does not mean they are not safe.
“This is something that really no one has gotten before, so we don’t know about the long-term effects,” she said.
Health experts are raising alarms bells over the number of healthcare workers refusing to be vaccinated.
“To me, it really makes it exceedingly important that we get the correct information to health care workers, and that we quickly dispense with myths and misinformation,” Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told The Hill.
In a Los Angeles Times report, fewer than half of hospital workers eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at St. Elizabeth’s Community Hospital in Tehema County, CA were willing to take it once offered. At Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, CA one in five staff members declined the vaccine.
April Wu, a 31-year-old nurse working at Providence Holy Cross, told The Times that she refused the vaccine because she is six months pregnant and is not sure how safe the vaccine is because there have not been any clinical trials on pregnant women.
“I’m choosing the risk — the risk of having COVID, or the risks of the unknown of having the vaccine,” Wu told The Times. “I think I am choosing COVID. I can control that, and prevent it by wearing masks, although I am not 100 % sure.”
Dr. Stephen Noble, a 43-year-old cardiothoractic surgeon in Portland, OR told the Associated Press that he was also postponing the vaccine.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be a guinea pig,” he said. “At the end of the day, as a man of science, I just want to see what the data shows. And show me the full data.”
In New York, more than half of EMS workers have shown skepticism about taking the vaccine, according to a New York Post report citing alarming vaccination declination rates by hospital workers throughout the U.S.
Government And Hospital Response To Dilemma
In his daily news briefing updating members of the media on the pandemic last Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced vaccination rates among hospital workers varies by region throughout the state, with higher numbers tending to be present in New York City. Vaccination declination rates also vary, but are higher outside the metro area with the highest declination rate in the Mid-Hudson region, which came in at 28 percent, according to Cuomo.
On Long Island, 60 percent of hospital staff have been vaccinated, while only about 13 percent declined to be vaccinated. One of the lowest vaccination rates of hospital workers was found at St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown, where only 34 percent of its staff was vaccinated.
Of the 130,000 people working in “skilled nursing” facilities in the state, 32 percent have declined to be vaccinated when given the opportunity, Cuomo said Monday, according to the New York Times.
A request for a break down of declinations by hospital was not immediately available from the state Department of Health or Cuomo’s office.
Cuomo compared nurses serving on the frontlines who are opting out of the vaccine and continuing to care for the public to “super-spreaders,” or people who infect many others with the coronavirus through close contact.
“No one wants to go to a hospital and be treated by a nurse with COVID. You don’t help people that way,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends healthcare workers are vaccinated and prioritizing those on the front-line, like emergency room and critical care nurses, but taking the vaccine is not mandatory for those workers. Questions seeking requests for comment and clarification from local hospital press offices went largely unanswered as to the number of hospital employees opting out of the vaccination process.
Rosemary Gomez, a spokeswoman for St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, which is part of Long Island Catholic Health Systems and one of the hardest hit hospitals last Spring, declined to comment on this story.
Northwell Health spokesman Jason Molinet did offer some insight in that the declination rate has been monitored by the state and that so far, Northwell, which is the island’s largest health system, has vaccinated more than 30,000 employees.
Lisa Greiner, a spokeswoman for NYU Winthrop in Mineola, said the health system is using “ongoing education to strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated.”
Cynthia Ruf, vice president of branding and stakeholder relationships for Long Island Community Hospital in East Patchogue, also offered no specific comment regarding the employees opting out of the vaccination process, though she did say that the hospital has had “great success” administering the first round of doses to employees. “We have not wasted any single vaccine and already have employees signed up for when we get our next distribution,” she stated in an email.
Hospital officials from Stony Brook Medicine, which includes its flagship teaching hospital as well as Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, are encouraging all eligible employees to get the vaccine a spokesman said.
Like NYU Winthrop, the system is providing education to employees about the vaccine and it has “physicians on-hand to answer questions employees may have about the vaccine,” according to a statement from Stony Brook Medicine. The statement went on to taut the employees adherence to the CDC’s guidelines, such as the “proper and consistent use” of personal protection equipment and hand hygiene to “minimize the chance of contagion and spread.”
Requests for comment from 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, the largest collective bargaining unit representing most of Long Island’s hospitals, were not answered. Just prior to the vaccination of the person in the U.S. — a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park — the union on Dec. 12, urged workers to take the vaccine calling it a “critical step forward to help protect members’ health and put an end to the devastating pandemic that has ravaged our nation.”
A request for comment to the union representing Stony Brook University Hospital Medical Center workers was also not answered.
Vaccine Declination Taking A Chance For Some, Others A Personal Choice
Wu told The Los Angeles Times that she would take her chances and rely on her PPE and relayed that colleagues were also taking their chances by opting out of the vaccination process. “I feel people think, ‘I can still make it until this ends without getting the vaccine,” she said to a Times reporter.
Rachel H. said she has worked through the pandemic, working from at home and then as restrictions loosened returning to the office without contracting COVID-19. When prompted if she is scared of contracting the virus, she admitted that she was.
“Of course, however, I have thought of that and I am not so sure that the vaccine will protect me,”he said.
Rachel said that she has heard people in the community criticizing frontline healthcare workers who are not taking the vaccine and it frustrates her because she realizes that the workers are professionals with more knowledge of medicine and the vaccine rollout.
“I say, ‘they have their reasons,'” she said.
She disagrees with any notion that healthcare workers are super-spreading if they don’t take the vaccine because she does not believe they would show up to work with symptoms and endanger their patients. However, she understands the need to get as many people vaccinated as possible, but pointed out it’s their personal preference.
“They still have a say as to what goes into their bodies,” she said.
Though she did note that if she was a frontline worker she might think differently about taking the vaccine. But for now, it’s a personal choice up to each employee and everyone is going to have a differing opinion on it, she said.
“I do think once more vaccines come out, more people in healthcare will be open to taking them,” she said.