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Despite being first in line, many health care workers are delaying vaccinations

COVID-19 vaccines were developed with record-breaking speed, and by late last year they were rolled out to frontline health care workers across the country. But despite being first in line many of those workers have decided to delay getting the shot. Amna Nawaz reports on the critical effort to vaccinate America’s health care professionals.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    COVID-19 vaccines were developed with record-breaking speed and rolled out first to front-line health care workers across the country.

    But despite being first in line, many of those workers have decided to delay getting the shot.

    Amna Nawaz reports on the critical effort to vaccinate America's health care professionals.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Since mid-December, Dr. Kathy Ferrer's been going non-stop…

  • Dr. Kathy Ferrer:

    We were holding these clinics Monday through Friday 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    An infectious disease expert at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., Ferrer is leading the charge to vaccinate all staff who work at the medical facility.

  • Woman:

    You better go on and poke me, get it over with.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's more than 8,000 people. And Ferrer says most have gotten their first shot, but not all.

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    Fifteen hundred straight out said, mm-mmm, not getting that vaccine.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What were the reasons they were giving you? What was keeping them from getting it that first day?

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    I would say a lot of it was because they were being cautious in terms of, they were like, well, this is the first time. I'm not going to be the Guinea pig. Other folks just had misinformation. Well, there's COVID in that vaccine or that's going to change your DNA.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Among the skeptical? Nurse Keetra Williams.

  • Keetra Williams:

    My first thought was, there's no way there's a vaccine available for COVID-19 this quickly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Williams, a nurse for almost two decades, even warned her own family against it.

  • Keetra Williams:

    They all look to me for my professional opinion. And at the time, I said, absolutely not. No one gets this vaccine, I mean no one.

  • Jane Keefer:

    I was leery because it seemed like they were rushing things to hurry up and find something. And is it really going to work?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Northumberland, Pennsylvania, Jane Keefer, a certified nurse assistant for over 40 years, was worried about side effects. She changed her mind and got the vaccine, she says, after getting COVID, then losing her husband to a heart attack.

  • Jane Keefer:

    And I lost my husband a week after I had COVID.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Oh, I'm so sorry.

  • Jane Keefer:

    So, I'm on my own. I can't afford to be sick. Nobody's around to take care of me anymore.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Across America's health care workers, the first in line to get limited vaccine supplies, recent surveys show about a third remain reluctant to receive the shot. Nationwide, mistrust of the vaccine has been highest among Black and Latino health care workers, who are also more likely to contract COVID-19 than their white colleagues.

  • Dr. Julie Morita:

    And so we have to acknowledge that and we have to listen to them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Julie Morita is the executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which, for the record, is also a "NewsHour" funder.

  • Julie Morita:

    Health care workers are also part of our communities. And some of these communities have reasons to have distrust of the healthcare system, distrust of government, because of historic and ongoing discrimination or mistreatment or experimentation.

    We have to talk to them and hear what the concerns are. What is the information they need to feel more confident and comfortable getting vaccinated?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ferrer found herself having that conversation not only at work with her colleagues, but also at home with her wife.

    When the vaccine was first made available to both of you, did you both jump at the chance to get it?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Dr. Clarissa Dudley:

    No. No. I mean, not me anyway.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Clarissa Dudley is a pediatrician who also works with D.C.'s Children's Hospital.

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    I'm assuming that she is going to be on board with me. And we're like, well, should we get it on the same day? Should we could get on different days? What about side effects? And she's like: "I'm not getting the vaccine."

    I was like, wait a minute. I'm in charge of this vaccine process. How can you not get the vaccine? And then she started giving me all these reasons.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What were those reasons?

  • Clarissa Dudley:

    I'm Black first in this country, and that has with it a lot of baggage, to tell you the truth.

    And so, to my public health degree, the culminating experience that I did was related to the relationship between Black people and physicians. And that relationship has been a cantankerous one.

    And so those are the kinds of things that are deeply embedded and challenging to overcome, even within someone who's a scientist. So I want to get away from the word of hesitant, because I think it's that people in the community are being thoughtful about the vaccine.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You use the word thoughtful. Fair to say there's mistrust?

  • Clarissa Dudley:

    Oh, absolutely, there's a lot.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Skepticism?

  • Clarissa Dudley:

    A lot of mistrust, a lot of skepticism.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Were you surprised when you saw that, even among health care workers, there was that level of skepticism?

  • Clarissa Dudley:

    I was not, because, like, having had That experience, having had the Black experience, that level of mistrust has always been an underlying current.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In their discussions at home, Dudley says the science led the way.

  • Clarissa Dudley:

    She helped me to kind of really look at the data, because I wasn't looking at the data at the time carefully, and so to carefully look at the data, gain knowledge for myself, so that I could make a decision that was — not only that I could support, but that I could encourage other people to support.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Once Dudley was on board, Ferrer enlisted her to convince their colleagues.

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    And I know that our staff, particularly our environmental services staff, is many Black Americans and Latinos.

    I knew that her as a messenger would resonate far more than I would.

  • Clarissa Dudley:

    Especially hearing it from somebody who was also very hesitant to begin with.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    An early challenge? Calming fears over a rushed vaccine.

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    We talked about the branding early on. It was like, oh, that's probably not a great idea to call this whole vaccine distribution as Warp Speed.

  • Clarissa Dudley:

    It's also a challenging public health message for people who are resistant or hesitant for receiving vaccines.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As time went on, the doctors found that following up paid off.

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    If you text them and say, hey, we have an extra dose, and we — I saw you the other day, and you said no, but are you interested now?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Are you really doing that, like following up with people over text, saying, I know I just saw you, but what do you think about today?

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    Yes. Well, a lot of people just say, this is the third time you have asked me, Dr. Ferrer.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    But, again, it also requires that, because we know also from market research that it takes 17 touch points before you're going to even consider something.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For Keetra Williams, that's what made the difference.

  • Keetra Williams:

    She just kept providing more and more information. Any questions, she was willing to answer. So, I would be texting her, saying, what do you think? So she was very instrumental in me getting the vaccine.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Also key to acceptance? Ensuring access is easy.

  • Nakisha Quarles:

    So, it was the first chance I had to get it here at this location.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nakisha Quarles works in patient registration at Children's Hospital. Today, she's getting her second shot.

  • Nakisha Quarles:

    I watched a couple colleagues for like 30 days just to see if they had, like, any reactions or side effects that I should be aware of. And I was encouraged to get it. So, I did.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Christine Brown works security at Children's. A COVID survivor, she also had early doubts, and waited.

  • Christine Brown:

    I heard like different stories. Like, some of them say — a lot of people say, well, the shot gave them headaches. They were just mainly talking about the side effects of it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    After a few weeks of consideration, Brown opted for the shot. Today, she says it gives her a sense of peace.

  • Woman:

    That's it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For Dudley and Ferrer, earning the trust of their colleagues is the necessary first step to wider acceptance.

  • Kathy Ferrer:

    One of the reasons why the CDC decided to vaccinate health care workers first was because, typically, health care workers are seen as trusted members of the community.

    We made a very concerted effort to ensure that our vaccination rates could get as high as possible, knowing that that had future ripple effects in the community.

  • Clarissa Dudley:

    Recognizing that our community is dying. Brown and Black people are dying at significant rates, and we need to do something to try to limit the despair that's happening there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Patience and persistence, they say, are what it will take to keep the vaccine effort moving forward.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Washington, D.C.

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