CLEVELAND — As the United States struggles to reach herd immunity against COVID-19, vaccine hesitancy is emerging as a chief rival.
That reluctance is evident through large parts of the country, but also in one highly unlikely place: the medical field.
As one of the country’s most important groups, it was medical workers -- along with the vulnerable elderly population -- who were thrust to the front of the line when the first vaccine shots were administered.
Roughly five months later, however, about three in 10 health care workers have yet to be immunized. Some are still pondering. Some are declining.
This reluctance among some workers has raised questions about whether health care facilities should require employees to be vaccinated. From Ohio to Texas, some providers are mandating workers be vaccinated or face termination.
In Houston, it’s already happening as workers are fighting a mandate to be vaccinated by June 1.
“It’s not fair to be injected with something we’re not comfortable with,” said Jennifer Bridges, a nurse at Houston Methodist Hospital. “I think our rights as human beings is more important than keep that job."
“Once the research is done in a couple years, fully FDA approved, I’m sure we’ll all line up and take it," Bridges said. "Just not yet. Let us have more time.”
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,300 frontline health care workers showed that 30 percent are either refusing or still deciding on getting vaccinated.
Here in Northeast Ohio, the numbers look the same.
At the Cleveland Clinic and MetroHealth Hospital, about 30 percent of workers are so far unvaccinated, according to data released to 3News Investigates. University Hospitals has refused to release their numbers despite repeated requests.
So far, no other major health care providers in Northeast Ohio have mandated vaccines.
At MetroHealth, they’re still working to ease the concerns of their hesitant staff by providing education on vaccine safety, as well as using patience.
“Everyone has a right to feel comfortable,” said Dr. Brook Watts, MetroHealth's chief medical officer. “I think this is the moment where we need to take time to answers those questions and make sure people do feel comfortable with decisions…and can feel educated and in control of their health.”
At nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Ohio, the widespread hesitancy has led one major provider to mandate vaccinations.
Ben Parsons, a spokesman for Continuing Health Care Solutions, said it was a decision made to balance the needs of its patients.
“It’s a moral duty to keep our residents safe and do everything we can to make sure they have a safe and protected environment,” Parsons said.
Continuing Healthcare Solutions operates over 30 senior living facilities across Ohio and employs more than 2,000 workers.
“Of course, there’s been some grumbling as when anything is mandated but the vast majority of folks understand they work in health care and work with the most vulnerable segment of society and there’s a need to keep them safe,” Parsons said.
Ohio nursing homes care for the most vulnerable and they’ve been hit especially hard with COVID-19 cases. State data shows nursing home patient deaths have surpassed 7,000.
While an estimated 90 percent of nursing home patients in Ohio are vaccinated, only about 50 percent of staff have taken the jab.
Complicating the struggle to vaccinate workers is the historical challenge of attracting staff due to the job’s lower pay and its inherently demanding work.
“It’s just very difficult to find folks who want to come to work and then tell them whether you like it or not, you have to take a vaccine, that makes it even harder,” said Pete Van Runkle, an industry spokesman.
“Unfortunately you’d think people working in health care would have different views because they’ve actually seen it in person…we can force them to take the vaccine, but that’s not really what you do to human beings unless it’s a last resort.”
Editor's note: The video in the player below is from a story published on April 21, 2021.