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In region, nearly a third of hospital workers have yet to get COVID-19 vaccine

Two months into the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, nearly a third of the eligible health care workers at southeastern Connecticut’s hospitals have not been inoculated.

Their hesitancy, though perhaps surprising, simply mirrors what much of the general population feels, hospital officials say, though just as surprisingly, it’s not what those 75 years of age and older have displayed.

For the most part, older people have been excited and happy to roll up their sleeves, doctors and nurses who work at vaccination sites say.

Yale New Haven Health invited nearly 35,000 workers to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations as part of the state’s Phase 1a rollout, Dr. Thomas Balcezak, the system’s chief clinical officer, said in an interview. As of the middle of this past week, 22,661 workers had been vaccinated within the system, representing nearly 65% of those eligible. State data show that about 1,700 more were vaccinated outside the YNHH system, pushing the total vaccinated to more than 24,000 or nearly 70%.

The 65% to 70% range holds up in regard to the vaccination rates among health care staff members at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London and Westerly Hospital, which are affiliates of the YNHH system, according to an L+M spokeswoman.

At Backus Hospital in Norwich, a member of Hartford HealthCare’s network of hospitals, 72% of the eligible full-time workers had been vaccinated as of this past week, said Donna Handley, the Backus president. About 62% of part-time workers had been vaccinated. Overall, the vaccination rate among Hartford HealthCare workers across the state was 58%, Handley said.

Balcezak said YNNH workers vaccinated in Phase 1a were prioritized by the level of risk they face, with those working in COVID-19 units and emergency departments being the first offered shots. Groups of workers with the highest infection rates and/or direct contact with COVID-19 patients came next, followed by workers with no direct contact with patients. Administrators who have occasional patient contact, including Marna Borgstrom, YNNH president and chief executive officer, who makes hospital rounds, have been vaccinated.

Why hasn’t nearly every eligible health care worker been vaccinated by now?

“When I’m rounding on floors, I ask who’s gotten it, who hasn’t and what’s the reason, if not,” Balcezak said. “What I hear is the impact on fertility is a common one (among young women). ... It has no basis in science and has been debunked by one of our own immunologists, Akiko Iwasaki" in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times.

Health care workers and people generally also have concerns about whether the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are safe, Balcezak said, based on the mRNA technology involved in their development and the speed with which they were made available through an Emergency Use Authorization issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Unlike previous vaccines, the new ones work by causing cells to make a protein or a piece of a protein that triggers an immune response. The response produces antibodies that prevent infection.

“People feel the vaccine was rushed, but mRNA technology has been around for more than a decade and has been tested again and again,” Balcezak said. As for the concern about speed and whether the vaccines’ potential long-term effects have been adequately studied, he said, “There has never been a vaccine whose long-term effects weren’t seen in the short term.”

“These vaccines have no large-scale side effects. So, they’re safe,” he said.

Handley, the Backus president, said she and others push carts as they “round with the staff every day” in a bid to overcome the lingering hesitancy among some staff members to get vaccinated. Workers can register and get their first dose of the vaccine on the spot. Shots are made available at convenient times for workers on each of the hospital’s three shifts.

Reluctance to get the vaccine is especially pronounced among people of color who work at Backus, Handley said, as it is among that segment of the population in general. She said Backus and Hartford HealthCare’s East Region have benefited from the example set by two of the first people vaccinated in the region, who are people of color. In public events covered by the media, Dr. Melisha Cumberland, Windham Hospital’s chief of medicine, got vaccinated Dec. 14, the first day of the rollout in Connecticut, and Lino Fernandes, a Norwich man who works in the environmental services department at Backus, got a shot at the hospital the next day.

Handley said her goal is a 90% vaccination rate among Backus workers.

'There's all different reasons'

Dr. Kevin Torres, L+M’s associate chief medical officer, said L+M doctors continue to conduct Zoom meetings with staff to answer questions about the vaccine and to encourage those who haven’t gotten a shot to do so.

“Some have wanted to wait, and that’s understandable,” he said. “Some might have had COVID and were waiting for their symptoms to subside before they got the vaccine. There’s all different reasons. ... We’re right around 70% and we expect to get to over 80% at some point, so I think it’s working out pretty well.”

Torres said he’s been impressed by the response among people 75 and older, a Phase 1b group that became eligible for the vaccine in late January. He said he’d done some vaccinating himself at vaccination centers where the elderly are “excited and happy” and appreciative of the opportunity to get inoculated.

On Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont reported that 61% of Connecticut residents 75 and older had been vaccinated. Those 65 to 74 are now eligible, as well. 

Hospitals have not mandated that their workers get vaccinated.

“There is no threat, no punishment, no coercion,” said YNNH’s Balcezak, who still conducts town-hall type sessions with staff to promote getting vaccinated. “It’s all about making them comfortable, answering their questions. The science behind the vaccine is solid, and the data show it’s safe ...”

Nevertheless, Balcezak said he envisions the COVID-19 vaccine eventually becoming mandatory for health care workers, as is the case with the flu vaccine. The FDA would have to issue full approvals of the COVID-19 vaccines before that could happen, he said.

Nearly 100% of YNNH health care works are vaccinated against the flu every year, said Balcezak, who attributes the almost total absence of the flu this year to the public’s adherence to the COVID-19 safety protocols, including the wearing of masks, social distancing and hand-washing.

“If anything good has come out of COVID, it’s that children have been spared respiratory illnesses this year,” he said. 

'A no-brainer'

One of the L+M workers who has been vaccinated, and who strongly advocates for his unvaccinated co-workers to join him, doesn’t show up in the hospital’s statistics, and for a good reason.

Rick Welsh participated in the Phase III clinical trials for the Pfizer vaccine, which Yale conducted, traveling to New Haven to get the first dose at the end of August. He got the second dose, as prescribed, 21 days later. He learned soon enough that he had received the vaccine and not the placebo administered to some trial participants.

“Within four hours of the first shot, I had a sore arm,” said Welsh, a physical therapist. “About eight hours later, I had joint aches, a minor headache, swelling of the arm. ... I knew I got the vaccine.”

Welsh, 58, of Old Lyme, said the symptoms went away by the end of the next day and that he experienced “a little diarrhea” on the third day. The day of the second dose, he experienced more intense versions of the same symptoms, minus the diarrhea, as well as a low fever and some lightheadedness, which caused him to leave work.

“By that evening, I was fine again,” he said.

Welsh read about the opportunity to participate in the trial in an employee newsletter, and jumped at the chance. He read up on mRNA technology and studied the findings of the Phase I and Phase II trials.

“It appeared to be super safe,” he said of the vaccine. “I was tired of looking at all the (COVID-19) deaths on TV every day and I have an 81-year-old mother I couldn’t visit. It was a no-brainer.”

Classified as an essential worker, Welsh had continued to work throughout the pandemic. He figures his proximity to COVID-19 and the fact that he had tested negative for the disease multiple times qualified him as a candidate for the Phase III trial.

Welsh said 29 of the 30 people in his L+M office have been vaccinated and he speculates that some were comfortable getting it because they knew of his experience and his willingness to advocate for vaccination. He said the hesitancy of some health care workers — and patients — surprises him.

He makes a point of volunteering at vaccination sites, including the one YNNH and L+M opened last month at Mitchell College.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

 

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