Band Phil Galewitz, KHN
Administrators at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC, were excited to be among the city’s first hospitals to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but knew it might be difficult to convince staff members to take the picture.
They were right.
The hospital, located on the campus of one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges, received 725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on December 14 and expects an additional 1,000 doses of vaccine next week to immunize its workers. .
Still, by Friday afternoon, around 600 employees had signed up for the vaccines, considered about 95% effective in preventing the deadly disease. Howard has around 1,900 employees, plus hundreds of independent contractors he also hoped to vaccinate.
“There is a high level of mistrust and I understand,” said Anita Jenkins, the executive director of the hospital that was shot Tuesday in hopes of getting her staff to follow suit. “People are really scared of the vaccine.”
Studies showed few serious side effects in over 40,000 people before Pfizer vaccine was cleared for emergency use in the United States. A few people around the world have had allergic reactions in the past week. (A second vaccine, from Moderna, was also cleared by the FDA on Friday.)
At the end of November, a hospital survey of 350 workers revealed that 70% of them did not want to be vaccinated against COVID or did not want one as soon as it was available.
So officials aren’t dismayed at the turnout so far, saying it shows their education campaign is starting to work.
“It’s an important win,” said Jenkins, who added that she was happy to “grab one for the team” when she and other caregivers received the first shots. About 380 Howard employees or affiliated staff had been vaccinated by Friday afternoon.
Although reluctance to the vaccine is a challenge nationwide, it is a significant problem among black adults due to their distrust of the medical community and racial inequalities in health care.
When Jenkins posted a photo of herself getting the vaccine on her Facebook page, she received many positive comments, but was also criticized. “One called me to sell and asked why I would do this to my people,” she said.
Before being vaccinated, Jenkins said, she read about clinical trials and was happy to learn that the vaccine differs from some that use weakened or inactivated viruses to boost the body’s immune defense. The COVID vaccine does not contain the actual virus.
And one of the factors that prompted her to take the photo was that some employees said they would be more willing to do it if she did.
The reluctance among its staff has its roots with Tuskegee’s experience of syphilis, said Jenkins, who started at Howard in February.
The 40-year-old study, which was conducted by the US Public Health Service until 1972, followed 600 black men infected with syphilis in rural Alabama during their lifetimes. Researchers have refused to tell patients their diagnosis or treat them for the debilitating disease. Many men have died from the disease and several women have contracted it.
Jenkins said she was not surprised that many Howard employees – including doctors – are wondering whether to get vaccinated, even though black patients are twice as likely to die from COVID-19.
While African Americans make up 45% of the District of Columbia’s population, they account for 74% of the 734 deaths from COVID.
Nationally, blacks are nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than whites and nearly three times more likely to die.
Howard, who has treated hundreds of COVID patients, was one of six hospitals in the city to receive the first batch of nearly 7,000 doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine on Monday. About a third of those doses were given on Friday morning, said Justin Palmer, vice president of the District of Columbia Hospital Association.
Political wrangling over the COVID response has also hurt efforts to build confidence in the vaccine, Jenkins said.
Other than arm pain, Jenkins said, she had no side effects from the vaccine, which can also cause fatigue and headaches. “Today I’m walking the hallways,” she explained, “and I got the photo two days ago.
Part of the challenge for Jenkins and other hospital officials will be persuading employees not only to take the vaccine now, but to come back for the booster three weeks later. One dose of the vaccine provides only partial protection.
Jenkins said the hospital plans to make callback calls to encourage people to follow up. She said efforts to increase attendance at the hospital will also continue.
“It was important for me to be a standard bearer to show the team that I am with them,” she said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit news service covering health issues. This is an independent editorial program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
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