Health care workers are expected to be first in line to be offered a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available.
It makes sense: Getting a safe, effective vaccine would help keep them and their patients healthy. Seeing doctors, nurses and medical aides getting COVID-19 vaccines would also set an example for the community.
But the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development, along with concerns about political interference with the process, has left some health care workers on the fence about COVID-19 vaccines.
So many health care workers are expressing concerns and anxiety about getting COVID-19 vaccines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says addressing hesitancy in this group is a top priority. A CDC survey, shared at a public meeting of its vaccine advisory committee on Nov. 23, found that 63% of health care workers polled in recent months said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m really hesitant about it,” says Kida Thompson, a family physician in El Paso, Texas. Her city is in the middle of a huge COVID-19 surge, and she believes that the broad adoption of a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine will be key to ending the pandemic. But she’s not 100% ready to get one herself. “For the ones of us who are asking questions, there’s just a lot of questions,” she says.
Thompson is a big fan of vaccines in general. “The flu vaccine has been around for a while, its efficacy has been proven, the side effects have been proven, and they are usually minimal,” she says.
But the COVID-19 vaccine is entirely new. Previous vaccines have taken years to develop; this one came together in months.
And the government’s messaging around the vaccine — that it’s the instant solution to the plague of 2020, and that it will be free for everyone — just sounds a little too good to be true, Thompson says. “Fast and free just doesn’t equate,” she says. “This whole thing has been politicized from Day 1, and there’s a salesmanship going into it” that makes her skeptical.
It’s not a population that public health experts initially thought would need much convincing, says Anuj Mehta, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health in Denver and chair of Colorado’s COVID-19 vaccine allocation committee.
But reports of the Trump administration exerting political pressure on science agencies, along with claims that a COVID-19 vaccine could be available before the Nov. 3 election (it didn’t happen), contributed to concerns that harmful shortcuts might have been taken with COVID-19 vaccines.
Mehta says the fast vaccine development timeline is not, on its own, cause for concern. “The speed is not because people were cutting corners, but because of the urgency and the number of people working together on it,” he says.
Vaccine development processes such as running clinical trials, evaluating data and building manufacturing plants, which typically happen one after another, were instead overlapped. And now that the election has passed, concerns over political interference in the vaccine will likely subside, Mehta says.
Giving COVID-19 vaccines to health care workers is intended to keep them healthy. “We want to be sure our health care workers are safe so they can protect their patients from disease, and that they can be protected and do their work,” says Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatrician at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and a vaccine hesitancy researcher.
However, policies pushed earlier in the pandemic seeded doubts among health care workers about whether their health and safety were consistently prioritized. “This is the same population that was told earlier this year that they should just go battle COVID-19 wearing a bandanna or a scarf,” says Michelle Mahon, a registered nurse who represents National Nurses United, a union with more than 150,000 members across the country.
Some health care workers have voiced concerns about safety and potential side effects from COVID-19 vaccines. They want to see clear data on safety and efficacy before they sign on to get a new vaccine, Mahon says.
“It’s a minority of people that are saying absolutely no way [to getting a COVID-19 vaccine],” says Dr. Marci Drees, hospital epidemiologist for ChristianaCare and a liaison to the CDC’s federal vaccine advisory committee. “I think the majority of people really just want to know more.”
Thompson reads medical journals and follows vaccine news closely, and she says a lot of facts just aren’t available yet. “I would legitimately still need convincing,” she says.
But she says she can be swayed. There have been calls by health care experts for the drug companies to release vaccine trial data publicly, and if they do, Thompson says then she’ll be able to judge for herself whether a vaccine is safe. If her friends who are doctors choose to get the vaccine, that could convince her, too.
And, even though Thompson has grown wary of government officials, she does believe in the integrity of at least one top infectious disease expert: Dr. Anthony Fauci, a career scientist who has become known for resisting President Trump’s rosy takes on the pandemic response.
“I trust what [Fauci] says,” she says. “He’s shown that he’s able to actually stand on his own 2 feet during this whole thing without being swayed.”
That’s what Thompson is trying to do, too. She’s going to look at the facts and make up her own mind. Once she’s convinced, she’ll be able to make the case to her patients. She’s already been telling them to wear masks nonstop.