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Vaccine Hesitancy Among Long-Term Care Facility Workers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

While demand for the coronavirus vaccines remains high, you might be surprised to learn that there's one priority group that's been hesitant to get the shots. We're talking about nursing home workers. And that's a big deal because long-term care facilities have been devastated by the pandemic. Residents of these facilities account for more than one-third of all coronavirus deaths in the United States. That's according to data from The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project. But despite being a priority group, a number of states and localities report that workers at long-term care facilities are declining the vaccines in large numbers. And they say that's due to misinformation and distrust of the health care system.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called Veronica Sharpe. She is the president of the District of Columbia Health Care Association. That's a trade association that represents assisted living facilities and their employees here in Washington, D.C. And she's with us now to share her thoughts about what's going on. Veronica Sharpe, thank you so much for joining us.

VERONICA SHARPE: You're welcome, Michel. Happy to join you.

MARTIN: So I understand that your group includes some 23 facilities. That includes both nursing homes and freestanding assisted living facilities. The Post recently reported that workers among long-term care facilities here in the D.C. area have expressed a lot of hesitancy about getting the vaccine. And in the Post article, you said that only about 40% of nursing home workers in D.C. had received the vaccine. That's less than half the rate of the residents who were vaccinated. So the first thing I wanted to ask is, are you surprised by this?

SHARPE: I think we were initially surprised, thinking, oh, this is wonderful. We have a vaccine. We can make this terrible virus go away. But then as people started talking, it quickly became apparent that people were concerned about the vaccine. The reason that they're concerned is the mistrust for people of color of the medical system, the fact that the vaccine was able to be developed so very quickly, and also the fact that there's misinformation about it.

And when I talk about the vaccine being developed so very quickly, I heard it - this - the best way to understand that the vaccine is safe is that the guys in the lab coats and the scientists did not deter from their usual method of getting a vaccine passed. This time, it was the guys in the suits that were able to work more effectively to get the science out the door. That's the difference. The scientists did not shirk any responsibility. These vaccines are safe.

MARTIN: And I do want to mention again that what you're seeing in D.C. among your members is not - you're not alone. Other states are reporting a similar vaccine hesitancy among staff at long-term care facilities. Like, states like Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Colorado are reporting similar things. So, you know, what about you and your colleagues? When you talk to your colleagues across the country, are you hearing the same thing?

SHARPE: That - yeah, that is correct. We are not alone. This is happening nationwide. And our numbers aren't really any different than anyone else's. But I am hopeful and believe that the numbers will change. And I think the reason for the change is that workers who declined the vaccine the first time have now seen that nothing serious happened to their coworkers after they got the first shot.

Leadership within the facilities has learned that it's much more effective to have one-on-one conversations versus a big meeting with staff. It's a face-to-face conversation about, please tell me, why are you concerned? What are your concerns? How can we help educate you on this? Or do you - would you like to speak to our medical director? Would you like to speak to - you know, to our director of nursing? So - and I think those conversations like that are helping people.

MARTIN: I take your point, but I still think it might be surprising to people to hear that these are folks who work in a health care setting or in a caregiving setting, and they probably have more contact with medical professionals on an ongoing basis just because of where they work than other people do. So I think that's one reason why I think a lot of people are surprised that the staff at these facilities are among the folks who have been vaccine hesitant.

And is it - is that because you think maybe other experiences in their lives override the place where they work? Like, I mean, is this a group of folks who are heavily situated among African American and Latino people, people of color in general? I mean, is that - do you think that that's it, that the rest of their lives is just more relevant to how they think about these things than the fact that they work at these facilities?

SHARPE: Well, I think the fact that most of our direct care workers are people of color, and as - and we know that, you know, the health care system hasn't always played fair with new vaccines or on testing things on people of color. So there's that bias already. But I will say that I've heard some individuals say, you know, I'm not getting this for myself. I'm getting it for others. I'm getting it because of where I work, to keep my residents safe. So it's trying to get people around to that type of thinking of, I'm doing this to help my residents.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you've said that these one-on-one conversations have been helpful. We've seen a lot of, like, high-profile people get the shot, like mayors and - you know, the president got it. The vice president got it. I'm talking about of the United States. Like, I'm talking about President Biden got the shot, and Vice President Harris got the shot. And do you think things like that matter? Or do you think it's more the discussions with people that you know and trust in your life?

SHARPE: I think that's helpful. I mean, there is a hospital in the district that they talked about the reluctance of their staff to get the vaccine. And then when the president of the hospital got the vaccine, then the staff started to turn around and be more interested in it. So I think people in leadership and roles being willing to take the vaccine and people knowing they have trust in them, I think that does help.

MARTIN: That is Veronica Sharpe. She's president of the District of Columbia Health Care Association, which represents assisted living in nursing facilities in the district. Veronica Sharpe, thanks so much for talking to us.

SHARPE: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY KEANE'S "FLIGHT 19 (IN ISOLATION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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