Healthcare workers are at the front of the line to get the COVID-19 vaccine, as Alabama plans to give the injections as early as next week.
But even among medical workers, some say they won’t take it.
“I will probably observe for a while before I jump on board,” said Rebecca Willis, a nursing professor at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, noting that the vaccine companies have not had time to test long-term effects.
Willis is far from alone. According to the CDC, just 63 percent of healthcare workers are willing to get vaccinated. In Alabama, the numbers may be lower. An early poll of hospital staff showed 50 percent would take a vaccine at both USA Health in Mobile and East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika.
The FDA has approved a Pfizer vaccine, and Moderna’s vaccine is up for approval later this month. Worldwide trials found that both vaccines are safe and have rates of efficacy around 95 percent.
For some, the unprecedented speed of vaccine development gives them pause. Alabama Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the process was expedited due to the worldwide pandemic, but there were no scientific shortcuts.
“The reason this process has happened so quickly is that these vaccine manufacturers are doing a lot of things in parallel all at the same time that normally they would do one at a time,” said Dr. Harris.
So does Katie Colbert.
“Somebody has to be first,” said Colbert. “If I can do something to help, I’m that kind of person. I’m always going to be the first one to reach out to help when it’s needed.”
Colbert is a nurse based in the Gulf Shores area who travels for short-term assignments at nursing homes. In the early days of the pandemic, she watched with despair as COVID-19 spread like wildfire among her elderly patients.
“Each day we lost a minimum of one resident every night,” she said of a month-long job in Indiana. At another assignment in Colorado, half of her residents caught the disease. Some did not survive. “It was horrific to watch,” she said.
That’s part of why Colbert is eager to get a COVID-19 vaccine at her next home in Florida, where she traveled on Friday.
But Willis, the nursing professor, said she is listening to a gut feeling about the unknowns. She wants to watch how others do. “I’m a little bit more of a critical thinker, and so I always like to look before I leap,” she said of the FDA approval process.
Pfizer and Moderna vaccines rely on a new technology that’s been in development for years using MRNA, or messenger RNA, to teach the body how to fight COVID-19 without injecting a live virus, as vaccines normally do.
Stephanie Horton, who works in a neo-natal care unit at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, said she also is not ready to take something so new.
“I’m waiting to see more focused research on the side effects people are having from the vaccine,” she said, adding that she probably wouldn’t take it until the end of next year.
She says her hospital hasn’t yet mandated its workers take a vaccine, but if it did, that would present a huge concern.
“I would have to really step back and think about my 18-year career and whether I would have to find a job that didn’t require it,” she said.
ADPH says it’s not aware of any plans among hospitals to require a COVID-19 vaccine. Flu shots are mandated by hospitals.
It remains unclear whether people who receive the vaccine can no longer spread the disease, but scientists are hopeful that is the case. To reach herd immunity, experts say 70 percent of the U.S. population must be unable to spread COVID-19.
“I’m so looking forward to this vaccine coming out in hopes that this will bring us towards some ‘new normal,’ so we don’t have to keep our guard up as much as we’ve had to,” said long-term care nurse Matthew Hart who works at Rehab Select in Albertville.
He said that he’s lost at least a dozen patients and watched his wife get sick.
“There was a time I actually thought I was going to lose my wife,” he said, adding that he felt helpless taking her to the hospital. “One of the worst experiences anyone can (have) is not being able to breathe, and her oxygen level was dropping into the 80′s.”
Now, months later, Hart’s wife, a wildlife photographer, struggles to complete the arduous outdoor treks required for her work because of the long-term impact she’s experiencing from COVID-19.
Hart worries that his family could contract the disease again, but he is hopeful a vaccine will put an end to that risk.
It is not known how long immunity from a vaccine will last. Researchers now believe that immunity from having COVID-19 itself is long-lasting for most people.
Dr. David Kimberlin, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UAB and Children’s of Alabama, is a liaison to the CDC group planning the vaccine rollout.
He hopes the release of more data on vaccine trials will persuade health workers who remain on the fence.
“After all, they have directly seen the risks of the disease that the vaccine prevents,” he said. “Transparency encourages acceptance, and we just now are to the point where we can see the data directly.”
Karen Eargle, a physical therapist in Birmingham, said she has mixed feelings and concerns but believes she would get the vaccine.
“Overall I’m positive about what I’m hearing,” she said.
“I think more education could be done on what it is actually, physiologically, doing within the body so that people feel more comfortable about what is being injected into (them). Everybody is fearful of the unknown,” she said.
For Hart, the nurse in Albertville, hesitancy among health workers is par for the course.
“Even amongst doctors, you’re always going to have those outliers who will disagree with what the vast majority of us are seeing,” said Hart.
“We are educated on a lot of stuff,” he said. “But there’s always going to be a small percentage of people who will have misgivings.”