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Health workers refusing vaccine is new growing US problem

Scores of health care workers are still declining to take the COVID-19 vaccine, presenting problems to the pandemic response by sending the wrong message to the public and risking staff shortages if workers become sick.

It’s all happening as a more contagious variant of the virus begins spreading in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday warned this strain could be the dominant one hitting the United States by March.

While there is no national data showing the number of health workers who have declined to be vaccinated, governors, public health officials and health care executives have sounded the alarm on what appears to be a higher than expected refusal rate.

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In New York state, more than 40 percent of health workers, who are first in line to get the shot because of their importance to the COVID-19 response, have yet to be vaccinated. It’s not clear how many had actually declined the vaccine, versus not being offered it yet. But the percentage of workers who declined a vaccine in different regions of the state ranges from 12 percent to 29 percent, New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoArkansas, New Jersey governors to head National Governors Association Foo Fighters, Dave Chapelle cover 'Creep' at first MSG show since pandemic Katie Hill says 'it would take a lot' to convince her to run again for House MORE said. 

“This is troubling to say the least,” Cuomo told reporters Friday.

The CDC warned the new fast-spreading strain of the coronavirus could be overwhelming already strained hospitals. Because it is more contagious, it could also require more people to be vaccinated to achieve the necessary level of herd immunity. 

“The hospitals are saying ‘we’re running out of staff because the staff is getting sick,’ ” Cuomo said. 

“That's why health care workers are the priority because if you vaccinate the health care workers, the health care workers don't get sick, the hospitals stay open. If the hospital stays open, it helps everyone. If the hospitals close, it hurts everyone.” 

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is off to a slow start in the U.S., likely due in part to hesitancy among those in the first priority groups. 

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Most states have prioritized health workers and residents of long-term care facilities for the first limited doses of vaccine. 

It’s not just health workers in New York who are a problem, either.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 29 percent of those who work in a health care delivery setting said they would probably not, or definitely would not, take the vaccine, even if it were free and deemed safe by scientists. 

Experts say the reasons for vaccine hesitancy among health workers are similar to concerns held by the general population, including worries about potential side effects. Some may also be taking a wait-and-see approach to find out how the vaccine affects people who take it earlier. 

“I am definitely concerned that health care workers are electing to wait to get vaccinated,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. 

“To me, it really makes it exceedingly important that we get the correct information to health care workers, and that we quickly dispense with myths and misinformation.”

Hesitancy appears to be particularly prominent among workers in long-term care facilities, where staff care for some of the most vulnerable members of society who make up a large portion of U.S. COVID-19 deaths.

About 45 percent of workers in long-term care facilities have been vaccinated so far, said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, a trade group that represents long-term care facilities. 

“It doesn’t mean that our staff are dumb or aren’t making good decisions or anything like that,” Parkinson said. “It’s just that there's been a lot of misinformation out there. There are rampant rumors spreading on social media.”

He expects more workers will get vaccinated after seeing co-workers receive the shot with no issues.

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized two vaccines for emergency use, deeming them safe and effective. Data shows adverse effects are rare, but vaccine hesitancy, in part caused by misinformation and disinformation spreading online, has grown in recent years. 

While employers could mandate vaccines for their workers, they would risk a backlash. 

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Staff at long-term care facilities are often already understaffed, and most don’t want to risk workers leaving the job if they’re told they must get vaccinated, Parkinson said. Instead, some facilities are offering incentives for workers who get vaccinated. 

“I’m way more a carrot than a stick person,” Parkinson said. 

“I’ve been encouraging providers to offer incentives and rewards and bonuses to people to get the vaccine, as opposed to punishments if they don't. But one way or another, we've got to get this right and much higher than it is right now.”