SEATTLE — After a horrific onslaught of COVID-19 killed the majority of residents at a small nursing home in Grant County, Washington, facility director Erica Gaertner couldn't wait to roll up her sleeve when the first vaccines rolled out.
"I thought, naively I suppose, that everybody else would just fall in line," she said. "But here I sit with less than 50% of my staff vaccinated."
Gaertner, who hasn't fully recovered from her own bout with the novel coronavirus, organized three on-site vaccination clinics at McKay Healthcare & Rehab in the Central Washington town of Soap Lake. She had one-on-one conversations with every reluctant staffer. Still, when Gaertner confided to her management team that she would mandate the vaccine if she could, many threatened to quit.
"The reality is that if I say: 'You will all get the vaccine or else you won't be able to work here,' I could lose half my staff and I wouldn't be able to keep the doors open for even a day," she said.
Despite being first in the nation to qualify for COVID-19 vaccination, health care workers in hospitals, long-term care facilities and other settings haven't uniformly rushed to take advantage of their position in the queue.
No statewide figures are available for Washington, but a Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll found slightly more than half of front-line health workers across the country were vaccinated as of early March. Another 19% said they planned to get the shots. Twelve percent describe themselves as undecided, while more than 1 in 6 — 18% — aren't interested.
"I think everybody in health care, at least in the leadership ranks, was surprised we didn't see 95% of our people go out and get vaccinated," said Dr. David Knoepfler, chief medical officer for Overlake Medical Center & Clinics in Bellevue.
Informal reports from hospitals across Washington over the past two months suggest an uptake rate of 60% to 70%, with the highest levels among physicians and among staff who cared for COVID-19 patients, said Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association.
For skilled-nursing and assisted-living organizations, there's a distinct geographic divide, said Robin Dale, president and CEO of the Washington Health Care Association. West of the Cascades, between 60% and 90% of staff at most facilities are vaccinated. On the east side of the state, rates as low as 30% are not uncommon.
The concerns raised by vaccine-wary medical workers aren't unique and mostly revolve around safety. The rare clotting problems that led the U.S. to temporarily halt administration of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine last week, coupled with similar concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe and other parts of the world, are sure to add to those fears.