Thousands of Health Care Workers in DC Area Have Yet to Get Vaccinated for COVID-19

Health care workers have rightfully been called the superheroes of the pandemic. But they’re also human, mirroring the same concerns and numbers as the rest of the population

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Doctors and nurses have seen the devastating effects of COVID-19 firsthand. But the News4 I-Team found thousands in our area have yet to get the vaccine. 

They’ve spent months on the front lines fighting the coronavirus, putting their own lives, and sometimes their families, at risk.  But some health care workers weren’t ready to get vaccinated even though they’ve been eligible in the District since December.

“I think a lot of people, they didn't want to be first, " said Dr. Kathy Ferrer, who leads the effort to convince the entire staff of Children's National Hospital. The hospital is proud to be at about 75% vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the area, as of this report.  

"It's about engaging in a discussion about the vaccine, about how it was developed, and answering questions, and really then addressing those specific fears and also misconceptions and myths and conspiracy theories,” Ferrer said. 

Health care workers have rightfully been called the superheroes of the pandemic. But they’re also human, mirroring the same concerns and numbers as the rest of the population. The DC Hospital Association told the News4 I-Team on average about 61% of the hospital workers in its most recent survey were vaccinated. 

"It's frustrating, but I think it's not necessarily surprising. I think once people do get that accurate information, that's what shifts it,” Ferrer explained. She learned that firsthand last year, when her own wife, who's also a pediatrician, was reluctant.   

"I was not in the trenches, so I wasn't reading scientific data at the time," said Dr. Clarissa Dudley.

"I was like, ‘WHAT?’ In terms of, what do you mean? I had already done all of my research, and I had assumed again that she was just as on board," Ferrer said. 

Dudley said even the name Operation Warp Speed had her questioning if the vaccine was developed too quickly. The couple had what they call an "elevated" discussion.  

"I think she helped me to see that it is a deep-seated distrust that I didn't even recognize in myself, like that has been going on for centuries,” Dudley told the I-Team.  She was convinced in time for the two to get their vaccines together. 

And now she's comfortable answering patients' questions about side effects and fighting hesitancy along racial lines. 

"It definitely helps when they feel that you have had the same lived experiences they have had,” said Dudley.  

Children's National is keeping a list of every staff member and their vaccine status. The I-Team surveyed 16 hospitals across D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia, but only six provided actual numbers on staff vaccinations, and responses varied.

Virginia Hospital Center had the highest number of staff vaccinations of those who responded to our informal survey, with 80%. A spokesperson said, “The number is constantly in flux as we administer vaccines and staff self-report when the vaccine is received at other sites and new staff join the health system.”

A spokesperson for George Washington University Hospital told us, as of the day of this report, more than 3,100 of its health care workers had been vaccinated.  

At least 75% of Johns Hopkins Medicine personnel have been vaccinated at Sibley Memorial Hospital and Suburban Hospital. But a JHM spokesperson said “the actual number of JHM personnel who are vaccinated is likely higher because they also have the option to be vaccinated at locations outside of our health system.”

At D.C.’s VA Medical Center we were told between 58-60% of the permanent staff had been vaccinated.

A Holy Cross Health representative told us it’s not tracking colleague vaccines saying, “As I shared your question with our HR leaders, I was reminded that our colleagues had the option to be vaccinated here or elsewhere, additionally, if we provided the vaccine, just like any external facility, our colleagues were treated as patients, therefore, their information is considered PHI and in accordance we do not track colleague vaccines as an employer.” She did add, however, that self-reporting has been high. 

Maryland's Hospital Association told the I-Team it is not tracking vaccination rates among its members either. The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association estimates its hospitals are at more than 60% vaccinated, but that's anecdotal; there's been no formal survey.  

Lawrence Gostin runs the World Health Organization's Center on Global Health Law at Georgetown University.   

"Here we have this miracle of a vaccine and we've got a large percentage of our population that won't take them, including doctors and nurses," said Gostin.  

He said workers in a hospital setting often treat immune-compromised patients who, even when vaccinated, don't always have full protection. So, he thinks staff vaccinations should be required. 

"Everybody has a right to make a decision about their own health and safety. But you don't have a right to put another person at risk, and particularly a vulnerable patient,” he said. 

Gostin said hospitals are already asking him about mandating vaccines, what the liabilities may be if they do — or if they don't — and about the ethics of forcing vaccination. 

"You have to give medical and religious exemptions, but otherwise you're in fairly strong legal territory," he explained.

Gostin said public hospitals and other government entities should wait until the FDA fully authorizes a vaccine, which could come as early as next month. He said private hospitals can do it now. Mandates would force hospitals to quickly assess who's vaccinated and who isn't.  

"I think you will see more and more mandates,” he said.

The I-Team reached out to the American Hospital Association, which is not tracking how many health care workers are vaccinated. But a spokesperson told us, “We have heard of a small number of hospitals that have made the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory (with some exceptions, such as for religious exemptions). What we’re hearing from most of our members is that they will likely make determination of requirement of the COVID-19 vaccine for their own workers based on safety and efficacy data available at the time the vaccines receive full approval from the FDA, which has not happened yet. That said, all hospitals and health systems are urging their staff and the general public to take the vaccine when it is their turn as an important step to provide additional protection from the serious consequences of COVID-19, both for themselves and for others, including the patients that health care workers care for. In addition, all hospitals are tracking the number of their employees that have been vaccinated for COVID-19.”  

Ferrer is hoping her whole staff will come around voluntarily. Teams of volunteers are calling, texting and visiting hesitant colleagues in person, trying to convince them so they can hug a coworker who's had a rough day or smile at their young patients again without a mask.  

"It really is a game changer in terms of morale and mental health, particularly for the kids, " she said.  

The couple is hoping their personal story will help convince others.

"If anything that we say can help be that next touchpoint that changes somebody's mind, then it was worth it,” said Dudley.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper, and edited by Steve Jones.

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