TAMPA — The syringe contained just 3 milliliters of the precious coronavirus vaccine. With a steady hand, the nurse jabbed the needle into the left arm of Stephen Quinones.
An emergency room nurse at AdventHealth Tampa, Quinones deals daily with patients hospitalized by the virus. He has a wife and a 2-year-old son at home and regularly visits his parents.
“When you’re a nurse and you come home covered in COVID every day, you’re a risk. And when you get symptoms, you’re a bigger risk,” he said. “So I’m taking any steps to reduce the risk.”
Their work on the front line of the fight against the coronavirus means that healthcare workers like Quinones also are at the front of the line to receive the vaccine. But many of them say they would rather pass for now.
Almost half of Tampa General employees said in a recent survey that they want more data about the safety of the vaccine before they are injected. It’s a similar story among 13,000 employees in AdventHealth’s western Florida division and at Moffitt Cancer Center, where 41 percent of staffers said they would initially decline the vaccine.
“A lot of my colleagues don’t want to get the vaccine until it’s tried,” Quinones said. “But some of us are going to have to take a leap and trust that the scientists behind this have our best interests in mind.”
That caution is understandable, say public health experts. The roughly 10 months it took to develop a new vaccine is unprecedented, which has fueled fears that long-term side effects are still unknown. Also, this vaccine is among the first to use so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA technology.
And even though the vaccine has been deployed in trials with tens of thousands of volunteers, there remains a perception that those being injected this week are the “first.”
Still, a low participation rate among healthcare professionals is a worry.
Hospitals and clinics will have to operate with only a percentage of their staffs immunized. And it may signal that health officials will face a tough task convincing enough of the general population to get the vaccine for it to be effective.
Roughly 75 or 80 percent of the population would need to be vaccinated for the United States to return to “normality” by the end of 2021, according to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“If we don’t get the high rates of vaccination, I’m worried this pandemic will last longer than it needs to,” said Dr. Christopher Friese, a professor of nursing and public health at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, who also is a practicing oncology nurse. “There is nothing coming on the horizon that makes this any better, other than a vaccination.”
About 300 AdventHealth employees, from doctors and respiratory therapists to security guards, received the first of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine Wednesday inside a large tent in the parking lot of the hospital on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The doses, supplied by Tampa General, are earmarked for those considered most at risk because they are in contact with coronavirus patients.
AdventHealth plans to eventually have all of its employees vaccinated, said Dr. Robin McGuinness, senior executive officer of patient outcomes. Since the vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration under an emergency use authorization, the company cannot mandate the vaccine as it does for the flu.
The company’s recent survey of employee attitudes about the new vaccine found the most support among higher qualified employees, including physicians and physician assistants. Caution was higher among employees such as nursing assistants and phlebotomists, she said.
McGuinness said it’s important for medical professionals to “set the tone and tenor” for the community when the vaccination is rolled out to the general public. It has provided information about the vaccine to employees and had its scientific review committee go over the evaluation conducted by the FDA.
“We knew that it was going to be a long haul to be able to vaccinate everybody,” McGuinness said. “I think by the time it gets to the general population, there’s going to be a lot of confidence in the vaccine.”
Moffitt surveyed roughly 7,000 employees about 10 days ago, with about 60 percent responding that they want the vaccination, said Dr. Robert Keenan, chief medical officer.
Some of those who indicated they did not want the vaccine said there were probably other people who needed it more, while others said they wanted to wait and see that it was safe, he said.
BayCare Health System officials said they are still canvassing employee opinion, but there was a high level of support for the vaccine among HCA Healthcare employees, where 78 percent said they were willing to be vaccinated.
“I am certainly hoping that a majority of our caregivers lead the way out of this crisis by getting themselves vaccinated,” said Dr. Larry Feinman, chief medical officer with HCA. “We are encouraging them like crazy. We want them to get this for their own protection.”
The level of caution among those in the medical field is not a surprise to Dr. Kenzie Cameron, a research professor in the division of general internal medicine and geriatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
The pandemic has made uncertainty a part of daily life, a mindset that leaves people less inclined and comfortable making important decisions, she said.
“If you cannot 100 percent identify what will protect you, what you’re left with is trying to manage your fear,” she said. “We know what will happen without vaccinations; we’re living it, and it’s not getting better.”
Cameron said that public health messaging cannot dismiss the concerns people have. They need to be reminded that the federal government’s approval process, while expedited, has not skipped over critical steps, she said. And the fast development of the vaccine is the result of unprecedented collaboration and sharing of information between governments and pharmaceutical companies worldwide.
“It feels fast, but it makes sense that it’s so fast,” she said. “We’ve had all hands on deck.”
As a hematologist who works with patients with cancer, Tim Kubal is used to reviewing safety data. Speaking a few minutes after getting the vaccine Wednesday, he said he’s satisfied that the data shows it’s safe.
He’s shared that confidence with work colleagues who are more hesitant. While he can understand them waiting a couple of weeks, he said, no one should put the vaccine off for six months or longer.
“We all want this to go away, and this is how we do that,” he said. ”Everything will feel safer, and you can see your family and friends safely, and that’s important.”
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