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Patience Is Key When Reacting To Health Care Workers Who Refuse The COVID-19 Vaccine

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

So long care - long-term care facilities have suffered disproportionately during this pandemic. A New York Times analysis put the number of deaths in places like nursing homes at 136,000, more than a third of the U.S. total. That's both residents and staff. And yet some nursing home workers are declining to be vaccinated. Aneri Pattani of Kaiser Health News took a close look at the issue and learned there's a difference between saying not ever and not yet.

ANERI PATTANI: At this nursing home outside Charlotte, N.C., the dining hall has become a temporary vaccine clinic. Staffers at the Brian Center Cabarrus were called up in teams to get their shots from visiting CVS pharmacists.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Like with other shots, you might feel a sore arm. You're going to take Tylenol for that. Then here you go.

PATTANI: Tremellia Hobbs is the activity director. She had lined the clinic room with blue and green star-shaped balloons because she wanted it to feel like a celebration.

TREMELLIA HOBBS: Monica, are you ready?

MONICA: I'm ready.

HOBBS: Give me some action. Monica, are you ready?

MONICA: I'm ready.

HOBBS: Are you ready?

MONICA: Yeah.

PATTANI: Hobbs filled goodie bags with Lifesaver gummies and notes that read, thanks for being a lifesaver. She pulled out pompoms to cheer on her co-workers.

HOBBS: He's our man. If he can't do it, no one can. Go, Stewart.

PATTANI: But even as she rooted for others, Hobbs knew she wasn't getting the vaccine herself.

HOBBS: No, I will not personally be receiving it today. I would like to see - give it a little more time.

PATTANI: Across the country, many nursing home workers have said the same thing. In North Carolina, about 50% have declined the vaccine. Ohio and Virginia have reported similar numbers. And that worries public health officials. Hobbs and her co-workers who also opted not to get the vaccine say it's not a simple yes or no for them. They saw COVID rip through their facility over the summer, infecting 30 staff members and killing 10 residents. But the vaccine is also brand-new. Hobbs isn't making the decision lightly. She works in health care. She respects Dr. Fauci. It's the timing that worries her.

HOBBS: Like I said, I trust the science. That just seemed like a really quick turnaround to have something that you diagnose and have a cure and a vaccination all within 10 months. So I'll just rather weigh up my options and just wait and see.

PATTANI: That desire to wait and see - Dr. Kimberly Manning says that's something she's hearing from a lot of people, especially Black Americans. Manning, who is Black, too, is a professor at Emory University's medical school in Atlanta, and she volunteered for the Moderna vaccine trial.

KIMBERLY MANNING: And I do think that we should stop saying that people are just saying no. Some people are what one of my loved ones calls a slow yes. Some people are a slow yes. And we just are too impatient to get to the point where we let them get to their yes. We're like the used car salesman. We're just trying to close the deal.

PATTANI: She says people respond better to patience and empathy. That's why she always tries to understand their reasoning. Why no, or why yes?

Back in North Carolina, Caitlyn Huneycutt, who's a certified nursing aide at the center, says her why no is the fact that she started a new medication recently. She's worried about how it'll interact with the vaccine.

CAITLYN HUNEYCUTT: I have heard that some people have gotten their shot and that they passed out. I want to make sure I'm going to be healthy if I take it.

PATTANI: By the end of the day, 64% of residents got their first shot, but only about 48% of the staff did. Stewart Reed was one of them. He's the center administrator.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You did great.

STEWART REED: Excellent job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you.

PATTANI: Reed's goal is to get 90% of staff and residents immunized. He's optimistic that'll happen after the nursing home holds two more vaccine clinics.

REED: That's the great thing about so many people getting it today - is the people that didn't will see that the guys that got the shot are OK when the next clinic comes up. So they will not hesitate to get the shot. It ought to go much better.

PATTANI: He's betting that given time, some of those not yets will turn into slow yeses.

For NPR News, I'm Aneri Pattani in Concord, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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