Is the data misleading?
The HHS system designed to amass hospital data was set up quickly, to respond to an emergency. For that reason, experts say the information hasn’t been as carefully collected or vetted as it normally would have been. Some hospitals may have misunderstood how to report their vaccination numbers.
In addition, reporting data on worker vaccinations is voluntary. Only about half of hospitals have chosen to share their numbers. In other cases, like Texas, states have blocked the public release of these statistics.
AdventHealth Orlando, a 1,300-bed hospital in Florida, reported to HHS that 56% of its staff have not started their shots. But spokesman Jeff Grainger said the figures probably overstate the number of unvaccinated workers because the hospital doesn’t always know when people get vaccinated outside of its campus, at a local pharmacy, for example.
For those reasons, the picture of health care worker vaccinations across the country is incomplete.
Where hospitals fall behind
Even if the data are flawed, the vaccination rates from hospitals mirror the general population. A May Gallup poll, for example, found 24% of Americans said they definitely won’t get the vaccine. Another 12% say they plan to get it but are waiting.
The data also align with recent studies. A review of 35 studies by researchers at New Mexico State University that assessed hesitancy in more than 76,000 health care workers around the world found about 23% of them were reluctant to get the shots.
An ongoing monthly survey of more than 1.9 million U.S. Facebook users led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh recently looked at vaccine hesitancy by occupation. It revealed a spectrum of hesitancy among health care workers corresponding to income and education, ranging from a low of 9% among pharmacists to highs of 20%-23% among nursing aides and emergency medical technicians. About 12% of registered nurses and doctors admitted to being hesitant to get a shot.
“Health care workers are not monolithic,” said study author Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of public health sciences at New Mexico State.
“There’s a big divide between males, doctoral degree holders, older people and the younger low-income, low-education frontline, female, health care workers. They are the most hesitant,” he said. Support staff typically outnumbers doctors at hospitals about 3 to 1.
“There is outreach work to be done there,” said Robin Mejia, PhD, director of the Statistics and Human Rights Program at Carnegie Mellon, who is leading the study on Facebook’s survey data. “These are also high-contact professions. These are people who are seeing patients on a regular basis.”
That’s why, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was planning the national vaccine rollout, they prioritized health care workers for the initially scarce first doses. The intent was to protect vulnerable workers and their patients who are at high risk of infection. But the CDC had another reason for putting health care workers first: After they were safely vaccinated, the hope was that they would encourage wary patients to do the same.
Hospitals were supposed to be hubs of education to help build trust within less confident communities. But not all hospitals have risen to that challenge.
Political affiliation seems to be one contributing factor in vaccine hesitancy. Take for example Calhoun, Ga., the seat of Gordon County, where residents voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden by a 67-point margin in the 2020 general election. Studies have found that Republicans are more likely to decline vaccines than Democrats.
People who live in rural areas are less likely to be vaccinated than those who live in cities, and that’s true in Gordon County too. Vaccinations are lagging in this northwest corner of Georgia where factory jobs in chicken processing plants and carpet manufacturing energize the local economy. Just 24% of Gordon County residents are fully vaccinated, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
At AdventHealth Gordon, a 112-bed hospital in Calhoun, just 35% of the 1,723 workers that serve the hospital are at least partially vaccinated, according to data reported to HHS.