Photo: Chicago Department of Public Health

CHICAGO — City hospitals have been able to vaccinate their health care workers against coronavirus for about a month — but some are struggling to get all workers on board.

Cities and states from across the United States have reported some health care workers choosing to wait to get COVID-19 vaccines. There’s been some hesitancy in Chicago’s health care workers, too — but Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said doctors and nurses have been more likely to be vaccinated.

Where the city is seeing more workers choosing to wait appears to be among people working in support positions at health care facilities, Arwady said at a Thursday news conference. She said, anecdotally, the biggest predictor so far of whether someone chooses to get vaccinated in Chicago is their level of education, as people who report higher levels of formal education are more likely to get vaccinated.

“But we want everybody working in these hospital settings to be vaccinated, ideally,” Arwady said. “I’d like to highlight, first, that we are not done vaccinating hospital workers. We heard a lot of hospital workers say they wanted to watch and see their colleagues get that second dose, know that everything looked well, before they were feeling that they wanted to step up. We’ve just started second dosing in this last week.

“We are very strongly encouraging all of our hospitals to do another round [of checking if people want to be vaccinated] with their staff.”

Officials at two Chicago hospitals, Loretto Hospital and Roseland Hospital, have said they are battling myths and other skepticism toward the vaccines. At Roseland, just 25 percent of hospital staff has been vaccinated thus far.

Other hospitals would not confirm what proportion of their employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or if staff are sharing reservations about getting the shots. But Illinois Health and Hospital Association spokesman Danny Chun said nerves around the vaccines are common even among health care workers.

“It’s happening everywhere. It’s common at a lot of hospitals in Illinois and across the country,” Chun said.

Despite the fact some medical professionals are wary, many got vaccinated without hesitation, Chun said.

“A lot of health care workers are enthusiastic and have gotten the vaccine. And what they are doing is talking to their colleagues, saying ‘I did it, you should do it.’ A lot of word-of-mouth is happening,” he said.

Dr. Marina Del Rios, from University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, receives Chicago’s first COVID-19 vaccination from Dr. Nikhila Juvvadi on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, at Loretto Hospital in Austin. Credit: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/pool

While officials said hesitant health care workers are no different than members of the general public in their fears and beliefs, they also acknowledge if they can’t get health care workers on board in large numbers, it’s unlikely skeptical residents will feel confident being vaccinated. 

“It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about it,” said Tim Egan, Roseland’s chief executive officer. “We’re facing generations of mistrust in the government and health care, and it’s all a byproduct of the massive divestment that’s happened in communities like Roseland over the last decade. Our population, our employees, they don’t have that trust in government, in science.”

A recent poll by USA Today shows trust in the vaccines has increased to about 60 percent, up 10 percentage points from September.

At hospitals, workers are hesitating for the same reasons others are: Some are apprehensive about the speed at which the vaccines were developed or have seen false rumors on social media. Chun said it’s important to realize health care professionals are people first and everyone is in uncharted waters.

“It’s human nature to be reluctant to be the first,” he said. “This is brand new; we’ve never done this before. It’s a miracle in a way that the scientific community has developed a vaccine in record time. The previous world record in human history was four years. This has happened in less than a year.”

Gov. JB Pritzker said decisions by some health care workers to refuse the vaccine will not derail state efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible.

“That isn’t going to stop us,” Pritzker said. “Whatever is not being chosen … for somebody to have injected in their arm is being given to somebody else at that facility.”

And officials have said no vaccine doses should be wasted if they’re not being used by health care providers. To avoid waste, the city and state are allowing health care providers with doses that would otherwise go unused to start vaccinating people who are 65 or older with underlying health conditions.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, received a coronavirus vaccine on Dec. 29 at Malcolm X College.

At Loretto Hospital on the West Side, the first hospital in Illinois to vaccinate people, an estimated 70 percent of staff have been vaccinated. Employees’ concerns about the vaccines are often the result of misinformation, said Nekohl Johnson, Loretto Hospital’s manager of Lab and Cardiopulmonary Services. 

“There are people who believe they are getting a small amount of the virus,” Johnson said. “That’s the biggest misconception, when actually it’s a synthetic strain. Clarifying that information, rather than the false information that’s getting out, would put us in a lot better position.”

Arwady and Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, have sought to dispel myths about the vaccines through public addresses: They cannot give you COVID-19, other diseases or make you infertile. They do not contain COVID-19. They do not change your DNA. They do not contain antibiotics, proteins, blood products, pork products, fetal cells or any kind of microchips or nanotechnology, the officials have said.

They’ve also emphasized the vaccines were tested and trialed on tens of thousands of people just like any other vaccine would be, and they wouldn’t have been approved if they weren’t safe.

Chicago’s first COVID-19 vaccines were administered on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, at Loretto Hospital in Austin. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

But employees of color are contending with another, more unique issue: distrust in the government after decades of disinvestment and mistreatment.

Johnson said she’s heard a lot of talk from Black employees about abuse of minority populations in medicine and public health.

“There’s a lot of thinking about the past with syphilis trials, especially among African Americans, and I’m Black,” Johnson said. “But all nationalities, races and creeds are taking the vaccines, so it would be impossible for them to use us when there are fewer of us taking the vaccine.”

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Fear in the Black community around COVID-19 is nothing new, but the fact that Black residents have contracted the virus in disproportionate numbers makes it all the more important to dispel the rumors, Johnson said.

“In the beginning, the myth was that Black people couldn’t get it, but we found out that Black people were unfortunately getting it in disproportionate numbers,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate that these myths have killed Black people. And there’s an opportunity for Black people to participate in getting the vaccines and in the studies, and unfortunately a lot of Black and Brown people are just not taking advantage of them.”

Chun has had his share of dispelling wild myths about the disease and vaccine.

“I have a 98-year-old mother who’s afraid of taking the vaccine because she thinks that Bill Gates is part of a conspiracy to put a microchip in the vaccine to track her. She’ll say, ‘It’s not in the media because it’s a big conspiracy,’ and I’ll say, ’No, it’s not in the media because it isn’t true,’” Chun said.

Egan also said he recently had a conversation with an ICU nurse at his hospital who said she hadn’t taken the vaccine because she read on Facebook it could cause multiple sclerosis.

“I said, ‘What medical school did Facebook graduate from?’” Egan said.

At Advocate Illinois Masonic, 1,500 employees have been vaccinated so far, said hospital spokesman Julie Nakis. She would not say what percentage of total employees that represents, but said nearly 34,000 Advocate team members have been vaccinated. On its website, Advocate says it has 70,000 physicians, nurses and team members in its network, which includes 500 care sites. 

Several other Chicago hospitals did not respond to interview requests, but Charlie Jolie, spokesman for Rush Medical Center, said his hospital seemed to be doing relatively well with employee buy-in.

“I think we’re doing comparatively well, but we’re not sharing our numbers,” Jolie said.

Loretto, Roseland and hospitals across the city and state are doubling up their informational campaigns.

“We have our internal campaign. We have buttons. We have flyers,” Egan said. 

Johnson said she was vaccinated and said she’s been telling friends and family members so they won’t be afraid to do the same.

“This is a scary time, so I kind of get it,” she said. “But my concern and what I continue to say is that the risks are far greater to not get the vaccine than to get the vaccine.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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