Why are so many healthcare workers refusing to take the COVID vaccine?

this healthcare worker did not refuse a vaccine though many others have
Photo via The National Guard/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: Aug. 2, 2021

Despite being prioritized recipients of the COVID-19 vaccines, many healthcare workers have refused to take the vaccine.

An early 2021 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost one-third of healthcare workers will “probably” or “definitely” refuse the vaccine. Though the American Medical Association reported in June 2021 that 96% of surveyed physicians had received the vaccine, other healthcare workers were refusing to get it for a number of reasons.

A large factor was an overall distrust of the medical system from minority groups.

Dr. Nikhila Juvvadi, the chief clinical officer at Chicago’s Loretto Hospital, told NPR much of the skepticism in her hospital is due to this lack of trust from minorities.

“I’ve heard Tuskegee more times than I can count in the past month—and, you know, it’s a valid, valid concern,” Juvvadi said.

The Tuskegee experiment to which she refers began in 1932 as the Public Health Service studied syphilis in Black men. As noted by the CDC, “The study was conducted without the benefit of patients’ informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for ‘bad blood,’ a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness.” That study lasted for more than 40 years. 

The study from Kaiser found that 27% of the public would “probably or definitely” refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. This number is down from 34% in September, but 35% of Black Americans still said they would likely refuse the vaccine. Almost half of Black adults surveyed said they wouldn’t get the vaccine because they don’t trust vaccines in general or because they are worried they may get COVID-19 from the vaccine. According to the CDC, you cannot get sick from the coronavirus vaccines, due to their design.

About half of Black adults surveyed also said they were concerned that studies and trials are not focused enough on the health of Black people. One Black nurse at Henry Ford Health System told the Detroit Free Press she was declining the vaccine along with other nurses who didn’t want to be “somebody’s science experiment, or a guinea pig.”

“Especially under the [Trump] administration that we have, it’s just not something that I trust,” she said.

According to a poll from Pew Research Center, 21% of respondents who don’t intend to get the vaccine are “pretty certain” they won’t change their minds in the future. Juvvadi told NPR she has hosted town halls with coworkers to answer questions about the vaccines but what has been most effective at soothing concerns is one-on-one conversations. 

There was also a political divide among respondents (and a divide between men and women). Republicans said they were less likely to get vaccinated, with 42% “probably or definitely” refusing the vaccine. The main reasons cited among those who said they would refuse the vaccine are worries about side effects, a lack of trust in the government to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, concerns over how quickly the vaccine was developed, and concerns over the role politics had to play in the development process. 

Some might believe that because they were already exposed to the virus for so long that they might already have antibodies, and at least one person said she was fired for declining to get the vaccine.

In mid-June, a group of hospital workers in Houston sued after their hospital suspended them for not getting the vaccine. A judge dismissed their lawsuit, saying that employers can issue that kind of mandate. As a result, more than 150 of those workers were either fired or reassigned.

By the end of July, more than 70 hospital systems across the U.S. had made vaccines mandatory.

In February, it was reported that only 38% of nursing home workers had taken the vaccine. A Walgreens executive said the number was actually 60% of nursing home workers. The AARP reported that nursing home staff cases more than tripled from October to December, while nursing home resident cases increased more than four times.

The AARP noted that “studies show that infected staff members are one of the greatest drivers of COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes”—including one unvaccinated worker who reportedly infected 22 already vaccinated residents and employees in Kentucky—but by February, nursing home cases had begun declining.

In a poll conducted by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation from Feb. 11-March 7, only 15% of workers at nursing homes said they would definitely get the vaccine.

Along the same lines as healthcare workers, it was also revealed that thousands of military members also are refusing to take the vaccine, and many correctional officers are declining it as well. A large percentage of police officers have also refused the vaccine.

Interestingly, it also goes the other way. In Scotland, one alternative health business owner said she would no longer cater to people who have been vaccinated.

Read more on the coronavirus vaccines:

Sources: NPR, The Undefeated, Detroit Free Press, NBC News, Pew Research Center

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