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What's it like to get the first vaccines? Health care workers share hopes, fears

a person holds a vaccine vial
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For Dr. Luda Khait-Vlisides, an ER doctor at DMC Sinai-Grace in Detroit, this moment is a big deal.

“Holy sh--, this is actually going to happen! And I am so excited about it,” Khait-Vlisides said last week, as the country stood on the brink of distributingthe first, much-hoped for COVID-19 vaccine.

Hospital workers on general medical floors, emergency departments, and ICU units are the first in line.

“My husband and I have been talking about this for [a] very, very long [time]. He's also in health care. We’re just excited to be able to protect ourselves, our children, and hopefully, try to protect our community.”

But not all healthcare workers – including those who have spent the last nine months in the trenches battling COVID – will opt in.

“I will decline to take the vaccine,” one Henry Ford Health System nurse said. (We’re not using her name because she worries it could threaten her job.)

“It might cure COVID for now, but what are the side effects down the line? It was produced so fast. If it was out a little bit longer, and more research was done on it, I’d probably take the vaccine, just like the flu shot or any other vaccine. But because it came out so fast, especially under the administration that we have, it’s just not something that I trust,” she says.

(Pfizer’s vaccine was not developed as part of the White House’s public-private partnership to fast-track a COVID-19 vaccine, known as “Operation Warp Speed.”)

Credit Courtesy Luda Khait-Vlisides
For Dr. Luda Khait-Vlisides, the prospect of getting the vaccine soon is exciting.

While she knows her employer isn’t currently mandating staff get the COVID vaccine, the nurse says she and others on her team have been clear about their concerns – including whether enough research has been done on the vaccine’s effects on communities of color.

“It's been voiced in several different meetings with upper management, with the CEOs and the president: they're fully aware that nursing staff feels as though they don't want to be somebody's science experiment, or a guinea pig,” said the Henry Ford nurse, who is Black. 

In a statement, a Henry Ford spokesman says the health system is “very mindful of the concerns of people of color about vaccines,” and that the health system made efforts to include them in its trial of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“While we know the long term efficacy data is not yet available for COVID-19 vaccines, we are confident in the FDA’s approval process and are dedicated to safety, quality and high reliability,” the spokesperson said, adding that resources are being provided to help staff make informed decisions.

Jessica Romanowski, a surgical technician at McLaren Flint Hospital, feels torn. After nurses there lost one of their own to the virus in November, Romanowski is all too familiar with the risks.

“I go back and forth, honestly,” she said via text. “Having personally lost a loved one to COVID, it’s quite terrifying to imagine myself alone or dying on a ventilator. I want to protect myself and my family, especially my immuno-suppressed mother."

But she also knows that so far, pregnant and breastfeedingwomen haven't been included in COVID vaccine trials. 

“My husband and I are also looking to start a family soon, and what long term side effects would this vaccine present to myself – or my child? History has shown us what can happen when drugs aren’t tested properly, that was evident with the drug thaliomide,” Romanowski says, referring to the drug approved used in the 1960s to treat morning sickness in pregnant women, which resulted in devastating birth defects. (The FDA never approved the drug for use in the United States.)

The coworkers she’s talked with are “all over the place” when it comes to getting the vaccine. “Many of the staff are vocal about being on board with signing up for it.... But many are also hesitant after reading all of the posted side effects, and whether or not the single dose or double dose [required for the vaccine to reach full effectiveness] would be available. It’s a slippery slope, wanting to protect yourself and be more capable of caring for your patients, but at what cost in the long run?”

How many healthcare workers want to get this vaccine?

This fall, the CDC released the results of a September survey showing “63% of health care personnel reported that they would be likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine….” In October, a survey of nurses found “63% were confident a COVID-19 vaccine will be safe and effective, while 34% would voluntarily receive COVID-19 vaccine if not required.”

Sparrow Hospital in Lansing has also been trying to get out in front of the staff’s concerns and questions, creating vaccine information sheets and making videos showing Sparrow health care workers pledging to take the vaccine.

One video assures workers that mild to moderate side effects, like fever or headaches, are normal reactions to the vaccine.

“And what that is is your body recognizing the vaccine, and developing an immune response,” says Dr. R. Dale Jackson, Sparrow’s director of emergency medical services/ emergency management, in one of the videos. “And the end result is you’ve developed antibodies to fight off any future coronavirus infection.”

Katie Pontifex, a nurse at Sparrow and board member of the Michigan Nurses Association, had concerns about the vaccine initially.

Credit Courtesy Katie Pontifax
Katie Pontifax, a nurse at Sparrow, started out with concerns about the speed with which the vaccine was developed, but now says she'll be one of the first to sign up to get it.

“In the beginning, it felt very rushed,” Pontifex says. “I think that's a very knee-jerk reaction that is very natural to have, in that it just felt like we were rushing into this.”

But she’s since come around: She and her husband, a researcher, have done a “deep dive” on the information and data coming out of Pfizer and the FDA in the last days and few weeks, describing the vaccine as effective and safe.

“I felt much better about it. I feel very safe taking this vaccine. And I will be one of the first to sign up to get it,” Pontifex said.

Sparrow’s own internal survey shows the majority of health care workers there are interested in taking the vaccine. And the CDC says convincing these providers that this vaccine is safe, and that they should take it, is a priority right now.

“Concerns among healthcare providers is a risk for overall vaccine confidence,” a CDC “Vaccinate with Confidence” campaign briefing stated in October. “Health care providers are the most trusted source for health information.”

Once this vaccine is available to more people, many patients will look to their healthcare providers to answer their questions or concerns. Eric Kumor knows that. A nurse at Sparrow, he says part of why he’s getting vaccinated is so others in his life will feel safe doing so too. 

“I'm getting vaccinated for myself, my neighbor, my patients, my wife, my mom,” Kumor says. “It's like I'm getting vaccinated for everybody.”

Michigan is expecting to receive some 84,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, enough for roughly 42,000 individuals. With more than 600,000 healthcare workers in the state, how long it takes them all to receive a vaccination will depend on how many doses the state receives in the coming weeks and months.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration’s stated goal is getting 70% of adults in the state by the end of 2021. 

This story was corrected to reflect the correct spelling of one nurse's name: it is Katie Pontifex, not Pontifax. 

The Detroit Free Press, Bridge Michigan and Michigan Radio have teamed up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Kristen Jordan Shamus at kshamus@freepress.com, Robin Erb at rerb@bridgemi.com or Kate Wells at Katwells@umich.edu.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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