Only a Third of Employees at This Hospital Want the Vaccine
By Phil Galewitz, KHN
The administrators of Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC were thrilled to be among the first hospitals in the city to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but they knew it could be difficult to get staff to get the shot do.
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The hospital on the campus of one of the country's oldest historically black colleges received 725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 14 and expects an additional 1,000 doses of vaccine to immunize its workers next week.
However, by Friday afternoon, about 600 employees had signed up for the recordings, which was touted as about 95% effective in preventing the deadly disease. Howard has about 1,900 employees, not counting hundreds of independent contractors whom he also wanted to vaccinate.
"There is a high level of suspicion and I understand," said Anita Jenkins, the hospital's executive director, who received the shot Tuesday, hoping to inspire her staff to follow suit. "People are really scared of the vaccine."
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Studies showed few serious side effects in more than 40,000 people before the Pfizer emergency vaccine was approved in the US. Some people around the world have had allergic reactions in the past week. (A second vaccine from Moderna was also approved by the FDA on Friday.)
In late November, a hospital survey of 350 workers found that 70% either did not want to take the COVID vaccine or did not want it once it was available.
As a result, officials have not yet been dismayed by the turnout. They show that their awareness campaign is starting to work.
"This is a significant win," said Jenkins, adding that she was happy "to take one for the team" when she and other health care workers received the first shots. By Friday afternoon, about 380 Howard employees or affiliates had been vaccinated.
Anita Jenkins, CEO of Howard University Hospital, received the COVID-19 vaccine last week.
Howard University Hospital
While hesitancy about the vaccine poses a challenge at the national level, it is a significant problem for black adults as they have distrusted the medical community and racial inequalities in health care for generations.
When Jenkins posted a picture of herself on her Facebook page, she received many thumbs up, but also harsh criticism. "One of them called me a sell-out and asked why I would do this to my people," she said.
Before the vaccination, Jenkins said she read about the clinical trials and was happy to learn that the vaccine is different from some that use weakened or inactivated viruses to stimulate the body's immune defenses. The COVID vaccine doesn't contain the actual virus.
And one factor that led her to take the shot was that some staff said they would be more willing to do so if she did.
Hesitation among her staff has its roots in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, said Jenkins, who started at Howard in February.
The 40-year-old study, which was conducted by the U.S. Health Service through 1972, tracked 600 black men who had been infected with syphilis during their lifetime in rural Alabama. The researchers refused to tell patients their diagnosis or to treat them for the debilitating disease. Many men died from the disease and several women became ill from it.
Jenkins said she wasn't surprised that many Howard employees - including doctors - are wondering if they should take a vaccine, even though black patients are twice as likely to die from COVID-19.
While African Americans make up 45 percent of the District of Columbia's population, they are responsible for 74 percent of the 734 COVID deaths.
Nationwide, blacks are almost four times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID than whites and almost three times more likely to die.
Black doctors are trying to get through to vaccine resisters
Howard, who has treated hundreds of COVID patients, was one of six hospitals in the city to receive the first batch of nearly 7,000 doses of the COVID Pfizer vaccine on Monday. About a third of those doses were given by Friday morning, said Justin Palmer, vice president of the District of Columbia Hospital Association.
The political battle over the COVID response has also hampered efforts to increase confidence in the vaccine, Jenkins said.
Aside from a sore arm, Jenkins said she had no side effects from the vaccine, which can also often lead to fatigue and headaches. "Today I'm going through the halls," she explained, "and I got the shot two days ago."
Part of the challenge for Jenkins and other hospital officials will be to convince staff not only to take the vaccine now, but to come back three weeks later for the booster shot. One dose of the vaccine provides only partial protection.
Jenkins said the hospital plans to make reminder calls to get people to follow suit. She said efforts to increase attendance at the hospital will also continue.
"It was important to me to be a standard bearer to show the team that I am with them," she said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit health news service. It is an editorially independent program of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
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