Not everyone is excited about the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines.
That includes hospital workers.
University Hospital in Newark recently found only 50% of its employees were comfortable taking the vaccines once they become available, according to an internal survey.
It’s a striking reminder of the fears harbored by many over the expedited vaccine development and testing process as the medical establishment races to combat the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also noteworthy considering the number of COVID-19 positive employees at the acute care facility doubled in November, according to Dr. Shereef Elnahal, University Hospital’s president and CEO and a former state health commissioner.
The concerns of the hospital staff mirror those of many in the general public, who have to weigh the risk of a new vaccine against the dangers of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 17,000 lives in New Jersey alone.
“Vaccine hesitancy and public trust are the biggest risks at this point,” Elnahal said. “I’m confident in what we’re seeing with the science and the data. I’m confident in the logistics that will eventually get the vaccine to where it needs to go — and in the process of administering it. But what we have not solved for yet is the hesitancy issue.”
The worst-case scenario might just be that the vaccines are rejected by the public when they come to market, allowing the pandemic to continue to rage.
In the University Hospital survey, which included non-medical hospital workers, the concerns were mostly over possible adverse side effects, Elnahal said.
The state health department found similar results among nurses when it surveyed health care workers in October. While two-thirds of New Jersey doctors said they would take the vaccine once available, only “47% of nurses answered that they would,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said during a recent coronavirus media briefing.
U.S. Army Gen. Gustave F. Perna — who is in charge of getting the vaccine to all Americans — recently said on 60 Minutes that if “we get vaccines to the American people, and they don’t take them, shame on us.”
But a perfect storm of mistrust, misinformation and politics pervades the expected roll out of the vaccines, experts say.
“It’s not surprising to me, the vaccine hesitancy, because we’ve politicized it,” said Perry N. Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health. “The problem is that we politicized it in two ways: You have the cult of personality Trump people who think (the virus) is not real, and then you have the people who are anti-Trump who think, ‘I don’t trust this because this is fake, and this is bad.’
“It’s huge. And remember, University Hospital has a large Black population who has medical mistrust to begin with.”
Inside the Newark hospital, a two-pronged battle continues as COVID-19 cases ramp up amid a second wave. One is being waged against the virus, and the other seeks to win hearts and minds about vaccines through a massive public relations campaign.
“We wanted to be proactive about this, knowing that there was a lot of skepticism about vaccines,” said Elnahal, who was an early volunteer to receive the vaccine during clinical trials. “Not only because the speed was quite rapid, and their development… but also because there are a lot of undertones of the history of medical experimentation in communities of color.”
Elnahal has been working to get the message out on the local level, addressing the wariness among the public and within his own facility.
“This strategy has to be right,” he said. “And I think the right strategy is having trusted local community stakeholders help you carry that message alongside the medical establishment.”
Acknowledging fear and skepticism — particularly in communities of color — is critical, Elnahal said.
When University Hospital and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School teamed up to conduct trials in Newark for the Moderna vaccine, he issued a statement to residents, citing the Tuskegee syphilis study and medical research conducted by J. Marion Sims. He told them their skepticism was warranted.
“For something as serious as a chemical that you’re injecting into your own body, of course you have to be skeptical and look at all the information,” Elnahal said.
“And that skepticism is real. It’s justified,” he added. “And it’s really our job as the medical establishment to address it directly.”
Elnahal is among the health officials trying to gain that trust. There are still many to convince. But he’s hopeful.
“While I agree that’s the risk, I do think we’ll be able to overcome it. But that won’t be easy,” he said.
Spencer Kent may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Rebecca Everett contributed to this report.