At first, when news spread of a 28-year-old doctor on the COVID-19 front lines in Brazil who died after receiving an experimental vaccine, doubts arose about the safety of one of the most promising coronavirus vaccine candidates. But then the story flipped. Although the vaccine maker wouldn’t confirm it, the doctor appeared to have been in the control group and had received a dose of an established meningitis vaccine. The danger came from exposure to the coronavirus itself.
That tragedy underscores the ongoing risk of COVID-19 to healthcare workers, who have been designated by US advisory panels as part of phase 1A – the first to receive doses of any approved vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that 6% of adults hospitalized with COVID from March to May were healthcare workers. The report was based on surveillance data from 13 states. The average age of the patients was 49 years. The agency set a November 15 vaccination “readiness date” for jurisdictions, such as state health departments, even though a vaccine isn’t likely to be authorized by then.
As hospitals scramble to prepare, their watchword is flexibility. They don’t yet know how many initial doses they will get, of which vaccine, or in what time frame. They have a sophisticated infrastructure to deliver flu vaccines each fall, but that framework doesn’t align with the likely scenarios of limited supply, additional reporting requirements, two-dose regimens, and differing storage needs.
“Healthcare organizations have consistently risen to the challenge. I wholeheartedly believe in their potential to do this,” Anna Legreid Dopp, PharmD, senior director of quality improvement and guidelines for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, told Medscape Medical News.
Healthcare workers won’t face a vaccine mandate
Even after months of caring for COVID patients, most clinicians remain vulnerable to infection – at work and in their communities. That was what occupational medicine physician Kevin Smith, MD, realized when his health system, Toledo, Ohio–based ProMedica, offered antibody testing to all its 50,000 employees. About 2% of the 6933 tests given came back positive, he says.
Yet many physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers share the public’s skepticism about the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine that receives swift US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for emergency use. About half of nurses (47%) and almost 1 in 3 physicians (30%) say that they don’t want to get the vaccine when it first becomes available or that they’re unsure about vaccination, according to a Medscape survey.
Because vaccination of healthcare workers will set the stage for public acceptance of the vaccine, hospital epidemiologists are concerned. “We know that there will be some hesitancy in the healthcare workforce, just as there will be in the broader public,” said Marci Drees, MD, chief infection prevention officer and hospital epidemiologist for ChristianaCare in Newark, Delaware, and liaison from the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.* “I do not think we can expect anyone to be vaccinated if we’re not willing to vaccinate ourselves.”
Healthcare workers are typically required to receive a range of vaccines, including measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and pertussis shots. Each year, close to half of US healthcare workers receive a flu vaccine under a workplace mandate. But COVID-19 will be different. The FDA requires anyone given products under an emergency use authorization (EUA) to receive information about risks and benefits and to have the option to decline. Hospitals instead will rely on education as they offer a novel vaccine (or more than one) that will have a minimum effectiveness of 50%.
ProMedica doesn’t require employees to be vaccinated against flu, but employees who decline must get a note from a doctor indicating that they have talked about the risks and benefits of the vaccine. A similar approach may be used with a COVID-19 vaccine, in which employees may be required to learn about the vaccine before they decline, Smith says. “I do believe some people will say they don’t want to get it,” he added.
Like colleagues across the country, Smith is identifying healthcare workers who are involved in direct care of COVID-19 patients and are at highest risk for exposure. Even within the top tier, those performing the riskiest tasks, such as respiratory therapists who provide breathing treatments that spread aerosols and droplets, will be tagged as a priority group, he says. Healthcare workers who spend the most time in proximity to COVID patients, such as nurses in a COVID unit, also are likely to get the first doses, he says.