COVID-19: Healthcare Workers vs The Vaccine

The mid-December rollout of two FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines coincided with a surge in US infections, as we surpassed 21 million cases and 300k deaths. Amidst the hope for a recovery from the virus, that has captivated the world for the past 10 months, the vaccine rollout was met with stiff resistance from many Americans. Of these, healthcare workers comprise the largest group of those refusing vaccination (albeit, healthcare workers also comprised the majority of people offered the early doses). This theme has persisted over the past few weeks. I will review some of the ideas behind the refusal of vaccine acceptance.

First, the headlines (taken from Forbes):

  • Last week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he was “troubled” by the relatively low numbers of nursing home workers who have elected to take the vaccine, with DeWine stating that approximately 60% of nursing home staff declined the shot.
  • Joseph Varon, chief of critical care at Houston’s United Memorial Medical Center, told NPR in December more than half of the nurses in his unit informed him they would not get the vaccine.
  • Roughly 55 percent of surveyed New York Fire Department firefighters said they would not get the coronavirus vaccine, the Firefighters Association president said last month.
  • The Los Angeles Times reported that hospital and public officials in Riverside, Calif., have been forced to figure out how best to allocate unused doses after an estimated 50% of frontline workers in the county refused the vaccine.
  • Fewer than half of the hospital workers at St. Elizabeth Community Hospital in Tehama County, Calif., were willing to be vaccinated, and around 20% to 40% of L.A. County’s frontline workers have reportedly declined an opportunity to take the vaccine.
  • Nikhila Juvvadi, the chief clinical officer at Chicago’s Loretto Hospital, said that a survey was administered in December, and 40% of the hospital staff said they would not get vaccinated.

Distrust For The Government Among Black/LatinX

Frontline workers in the United States are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. It is no surprise to my readers, as mentioned briefly in my AHA recap article(s), that structural racism is (and has been) a pervasive force within healthcare. “I’ve heard Tuskegee more times than I can count in the past month — and, you know, it’s a valid, valid concern,” said Dr. Juvvadi. This forms the crux of the argument made by minority frontline workers against receiving the vaccine. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 29% of healthcare workers were hesitant to receive the vaccine, citing concerns related to potential side effects and a lack of faith in the government to ensure the vaccines were safe. Furthermore, dissenters question the involvement of Black/LatinX participants in the clinical trials that led to the development and deployment of at least two FDA-approved vaccines at the time of this article. Dr. Juvvadi told NPR that “there’s no transparency between pharmaceutical companies or research companies — or the government sometimes — on how many people from.” In an op-ed published in the New York Times last week, emergency physicians Benjamin Thomas and Monique Smith wrote that “vaccine reluctance is a direct consequence of the medical system’s mistreatment of Black people,” exemplified by the unethical surgeries performed by J. Marion Sims and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, that highlight “the culture of medical exploitation, abuse, and neglect of Black Americans.”

Altruism and Others More Deserving

Medicine is an inherently altruistic field, one that requires a dedication to the service and betterment of others. This theme has largely affected the sentiment concerning the acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccines. In an op-ed published earlier this week by Marty Makary MD MPH, a professor of surgery and health policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the case for delaying vaccination is made. Dr. Makary states:

“After a summer of corporate statements pledging that Black Lives Matter, America’s vaccine rollout is creating inequities stemming from a ruling class making rules to favor themselves. In the first two weeks after the FDA authorized the life-saving vaccine, hospital board members, spouses of physicians, cosmetic surgery receptionists, and young firefighters have been getting the vaccine ahead of our society’s most vulnerable. Low-risk Americans with access and power are cutting in the vaccine line and, by doing so, are essentially telling our society’s most vulnerable members ‘your life matters less.’”

Dr. Makary shares his experience as a physician who performs surgeries on COVID-negative patients in a sterile environment with the highest infection control precautions accounted for. Furthermore, he weighs his personal risk of having a complicated course of COVID-19 infection versus that of his elderly patients, many of whom have multiple comorbid medical conditions. He argues that low-risk healthcare workers, including those who have already been infected, defer their vaccination in order to allow for higher-risk individuals to receive a potentially life-saving intervention. This highlights the chasm in Medicine between altruism and self-preservation. Is it possible to do both?

I end with a quote from Dr. Makary, expressing his views on the matter:

“I’m not criticizing clinicians who get the vaccine — my personal decision might be different if I spent more time in the ICU, took more ER calls, or was at high risk of being a silent carrier of the virus, putting my patients at risk. But that’s not me. Given my very low personal risk of mortality and my very low risk of getting the virus in my clinical work, I have joined a growing chorus of healthcare workers who have taken a pledge to not get the vaccine until every high-risk American has been offered it first.”

Thank you for reading, and please feel free to reach out to me with comments or questions on Twitter @DrDapo.


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