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With COVID Vaccinations Underway, Some Frontline Workers Are Hesitant To Receive It

Hopkins County Schools Superintendent Deanna Ashby received a vaccine earlier this month.
Hopkins County Schools
Hopkins County Schools Superintendent Deanna Ashby received a vaccine earlier this month.

More than 969,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered to long-term care workers, teachers, and additional frontline health care workers around the Ohio Valley.  But  a surprising number of workers in some key sectors are hesitant or are refusing to get a shot, including some rural school staff in Kentucky, nursing facility workers in Ohio, and correctional facility employees in West Virginia.

In western Kentucky, some school districts are finding 50% to nearly 70% of school staff are declining the vaccine, for example, and some Ohio nursing facilities struggle to get more than half of the staff to get a shot.

Ohio Health Care Association Executive Director Pete Van Runkle said nursing facilities have begun peer-to-peer counseling to help staff encourage each other to get vaccinated.

“We're doing what we can,” Van Runkle said. “It really comes down to the trenches, it comes down to the individual, the leadership of the individual facilities, buying into this themselves, which isn't always the case.” 

In early January, a press release from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine reported that about 40% of nursing home staff in the state would get the COVID-19 vaccine compared to 75% to 80% of residents who want the vaccine. “Governor DeWine encouraged those in nursing homes who initially declined to receive the vaccine to get their first dose as part of this second round,” the statement said. 

Of Ohio’s two veterans homes, 91% of residents have received one or two doses of the vaccine as of January 11. However, only 54% of eligible staff have received the vaccine, according to data from the Ohio Department of Veterans Services. 

Van Runkle said the percentage of skilled nursing facility staff who want the vaccine has moderately increased to about 50% or 55%. The ideal vaccination rate for staff is between 70% and 80%, he said. 

“But given the kind of deep-seated fear and concern that a lot of staff members have, for a whole variety of reasons, it's definitely an improvement. We're getting there,” Van Runkle said.

Van Runkle said reasons are largely similar to those cited by the general public. Some staff don’t think they’re at high risk for complications from the virus and others don’t take any vaccinations. And then there’s the battle against misinformation. Some want to wait until more people have been inoculated because they are still uncertain about the vaccine’s safety. 

Van Runkle shared a painful personal anecdote. At the facility that was caring for his 91-year-old mother he encountered a skilled nursing facility worker who did not want the vaccine. 

“She was not in great health to begin with, but then she got COVID. And that ended up taking her life,” Van Runkle said of his mother. He and two nurses were with his mother when she passed away. 

One of the nurses told Van Runkle that she doesn’t want to be vaccinated because she’s breastfeeding and is afraid it might harm her baby. Van Runkle said the science behind the vaccine indicates it is safe and encouraged the nurse to speak to her doctor. 

“But I would bet you a dollar to a doughnut, that that nurse is not going to get the vaccine, because in her mind, she's worried about herself and of course, her child, her baby,” he said. “So anyway, that's the kind of thing that we're dealing with.”

The vaccine hesitancy also has extended to some rural school districts, even in a county that was one of the first in the region to be hit by the pandemic. 

Hopkins County in western Kentucky had dozens of cases stemming from church gatherings in April of last year, with the county executive at that point declaring a curfew and banning gatherings of more than 10 people. The county of about 45,000 people now has more than 100 deaths, the fourth highest in the state. 

So for Hopkins County Schools Superintendent Deanna Ashby, seeing vaccines come to her district is a milestone. 

“We are very, very excited that we have reached this day,” Ashby said in a recent interview. “We believe that it is going to help to build a wall of protection and the first step in the right direction to get our kids back on campus and to try to return to some type of normalcy.”

Ashby was the first in her district to get vaccinated earlier this month, hoping to set an example for others as the leader of the second largest employer in the county. But not everyone in her district is willing yet to go along with her. A district survey found about half of her staff declined at this point to receive it. 

“Just like through so much of this, it's a political issue. There's people on both sides of it. And in our community, much like the nation, I think it's split about 50-50,” Ashby said. “And because it is such a sensitive issue, I have not done a hard sell on it. I've not done a hard push whatsoever.”

She said even within her own family the issue of whether to receive the vaccine is sharply divided. Ashby hopes as those in her district receive the second dose of the vaccine and see the effectiveness of it, conversations can take place among her employees to create more trust in the shot. 

Fulton Independent School District Superintendent DeAnna Miller in far western Kentucky   agrees with that sentiment, where only about a third of her employees have recently indicated they’ve wanted a shot. 

Her small district, enrolling about 270 students, lost a teacher late last year to COVID-19, which she said weighs heavily on her decisions, including to take a vaccine herself. 

“I think this vaccine is a wonderful step to help us prevent illness or certainly lessen the symptoms of the COVID virus,” Miller said. “For me, personally, I am excited about getting it and look forward to it. And I wish that 100% of my faculty would have that opinion. But that's the beauty of the United States. We have the right to make decisions for ourselves. So I have to support that as well.”

Hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t only stem from conspiracy theories and misinformation. Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. In addition to health inequities, the history of medical abuses such as forced sterilizations and unethical studies left a legacy of distrust among many people of color. 

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said during a January press conference that he believed the percentage of school district employees wanting a vaccine across Kentucky is about 70%, and urban school districts such as Jefferson County Public Schools have also seen higher willingness for vaccinations. 

In West Virginia, state health officials have recently received praise for their rapid pace of vaccination distributions by relying on local pharmacies, seen as a way to help build trust in the vaccine by having local pharmacy employees set up clinics in their communities. But the state has also encountered hesitation among its Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation staff. So far only 36% of have signed up for the vaccine. The state’s incarcerated population has not yet been vaccinated. 

Jeff Young is managing editor of the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism collaboration led by Louisville Public Media.

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