Nursing Homes

Vaccine Hesitancy vs. Vaccine Refusal: Nursing Home Staffers Say There’s a Difference

CONCORD, N.C. — It had been months since Tremellia Hobbs had an excuse to bring out the pompoms. Before the pandemic, they were a crowd favorite at movie nights and bingo tournaments that Hobbs organized as activities director at the Brian Center Health & Retirement/Cabarrus nursing home.

On Jan. 14, she finally had a reason. After nearly a year of living with pandemic restrictions and a summer outbreak that killed 10 residents and infected 30 staff members, the nursing home was hosting its first covid-19 vaccine clinic.

So Hobbs lifted the red and silver tassels into the air and cheered as her co-workers lined up to get shots from two visiting CVS pharmacists. “Stewart, Stewart, he’s our man! If he can’t do it, no one can! Goooo, Stewart!”

But even as Hobbs rooted for her colleagues, decorated the dining hall with green and blue balloons, and assembled goodie bags with Life Savers gummies for those who received their shots, she knew she wouldn’t be getting the vaccine herself.

“Being able to diagnose, come up with a vaccine and administer it all within the same year just seems a little puzzling,” she said. “I would like to see, give it a little more time.”

Hobbs’ hesitancy has been echoed by nursing home staff members across the state and country. But her reasoning — as well as that of her colleagues who also opted against the vaccine that day — goes far beyond a simple yes or no. The decision is complicated and multifaceted, they said, which means persuading them to say yes will be, too.

In North Carolina, the health secretary has said more than half of nursing home workers are declining the vaccine. A national survey found that 15% of health care workers who had been offered the vaccine said no, with nursing home personnel more likely to refuse than hospital staffers.

The trend has concerned public health officials, who say vaccines are among the best ways to protect vulnerable elderly residents who may be infected by asymptomatic staff members. Although long-term care facilities house less than 1% of the nation’s population, they’ve accounted for 37% of covid deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Tremellia Hobbs, activities director at the Brian Center/Cabarrus nursing home, cheers on her co-workers as they receive the covid-19 vaccine at the Brian Center/Cabarrus nursing home. (Aneri Pattani)

Early reports suggest nursing home residents are getting vaccinated at a higher rate than workers. A CDC analysis of more than 11,000 long-term care facilities found that in the first month of vaccinations, about 78% of residents got at least one dose, but only 38% of staffers did.

But some nursing home staffers say their reluctance is being misconstrued. Most are not saying they’ll never take the vaccine, but simply that they have concerns about such a new product. They understand it went through months of clinical trials, but what about possible long-term side effects, for instance? Or how did politics play into the development process? For communities of color, their historical mistreatment by the medical system can also factor into the decision.

“We should stop saying that people are just saying no,” said Dr. Kimberly Manning, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine who is participating in the Moderna vaccine trial. A Black physician herself, she has been speaking with many Black Americans about the vaccine and instead refers to people as “slow yeses.”

“We just are too impatient to get to the point where we let them get to their yes,” she said. “We’re like the used-car salesman. We’re just trying to close the deal.”

But human beings respond better to empathy and patience than to pressure, Manning said. She tries to ask people about their individual concerns and work from there. Sometimes it’s skepticism about the government’s intentions. Other times it’s worry about how the vaccine may interact with fertility treatments.

“It’s important to not lump anybody into a group and say ‘How dare you just not get vaccinated?’ because you’re a health care worker,” she said. “You’re still a person.”

Vials of the Moderna covid-19 vaccine thaw before they can be administered to residents and staffers at the Brian Center/Cabarrus nursing home. (Aneri Pattani)

Hobbs, at the nursing home, is not against immunizations in general, she said, and her decision has nothing to do with distrusting the medical system as a Black woman.

“I totally trust the science. I love Dr. Fauci,” Hobbs said. “My thing is the timing.”

She wants to wait and see how others who get the shots fare. In the meantime, Hobbs said, she’ll continue masking, physical distancing, and sanitizing — all of which have kept her covid-free for 10 months and which she hopes will continue to protect the residents, each of whom she knows by name and favorite activity.

Caitlyn Huneycutt, a certified nursing assistant at the center, also opted out of getting a shot — but for an entirely different set of reasons. She expects covid vaccinations will be mandated for health workers in the future, much like other immunizations. And she’ll get them then. But for now, she’s still weighing the risks.

She recently started a new medication and is not sure how it’ll interact with the vaccine. She doesn’t want to bring covid home to her 1-year-old daughter, but she’s also heard of people who received the vaccine and fainted or developed kidney infections. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not list either of these as common side effects for the two covid vaccines in use.)

“I want to make sure I’m going to be healthy if I take it,” Huneycutt said.

A CVS pharmacist prepares doses of the Moderna covid-19 vaccine during a clinic at the Brian Center Health & Retirement/Cabarrus nursing home on Jan. 14, 2021. (Aneri Pattani)
Josiah Howard (right) was one of two CVS pharmacists who administered the Moderna covid-19 vaccine to staff members and residents at the Brian Center/Cabarrus nursing home on Jan. 14, 2021. (Aneri Pattani)

Across the country, nursing homes are taking different approaches to persuade their staff to get vaccinated. SavaSeniorCare, which owns the Brian Center/Cabarrus, has offered cash to its 169 long-term care homes in 20 states to pay for gift cards, parties, or other incentives. For over a month now, the company has also been hosting weekly phone calls to educate staffers about the vaccine and making Sava doctors and pharmacists available to answer questions.

At least one nursing home chain in the U.S. announced it will require all employees to receive a vaccine, but most others, including Sava, have not yet done so.

Stewart Reed, the administrator for the Brian Center/Cabarrus, is hoping to lead by example instead.

Reed experienced the harsh reality of covid firsthand and was out of work for two weeks in the fall. In January, he was among the first in line to get the vaccine. For the rest of the day, he popped in and out of the dining hall where shots were being administered to thank staff members for doing their part.

In total, about 48% of staff members and 64% of residents at the center received their first dose of vaccine that day. The numbers are well below Sava’s goal of 90%, Reed said, but the pharmacists will return for two more clinics in the coming months.

“The people that didn’t get it [today] will see that the guys that got the shot are OK,” Reed said. “When the next clinic comes up, they will not hesitate to get their first shot. It ought to go much better.”

At Colorado’s Rural Edges, Vaccines Help Assisted Living Homes Crack Open the Doors

Bingo is back in the dining room. In-person visits have returned, too, though with masks and plexiglass. The Haven Assisted Living Facility’s residents are even planning a field trip for a private movie screening once they’ve all gotten their second round of covid-19 vaccines.

Such changes are small but meaningful to residents in the Hayden, Colorado, long-term care home, and they’re due mostly to the arrival of the vaccine.

While the vaccine rollout has hit snags across the U.S., including in many large urban areas, some rural counties — with their smaller populations and well-connected communities — have gotten creative about getting the doses out quickly to long-term care facilities. They are circumventing bogged-down Walgreens and CVS, the pharmacy chains contracted for the campaign, and instead are inoculating their older residents with the counties’ shares of doses.

It’s clear why the counties are trying their own path. Federal data provided by the state of Colorado shows that, as of Jan. 21, dozens of long-term care facilities in Colorado were enrolled to receive vaccines from Walgreens or CVS but still did not have any vaccination dates scheduled. Among assisted living facilities in particular, rural locations tended to have later start dates than non-rural ones. By mid-January, over 90 facilities had opted out of the program that has been beset by cumbersome paperwork and corporate policies.

When Roberta Smith, who directs the Routt County Public Health Department, learned in December that The Haven and another facility in the county hadn’t gotten any dates from Walgreens for their shots, she diverted about 100 doses from the county’s allotment. The vaccines would likely have gone to health care workers, she said, but she couldn’t let the most vulnerable in the county wait.

Fourteen of the 19 people who died of covid in the county, after all, had been residents of those two long-term care facilities.

The county received a shipment of Moderna vaccines the following week to continue with its health care workers, Smith said.

The health department ensured that all able and willing residents of the county’s two long-term care facilities received their first doses before 2021 began. Smith suspects such reprioritization and fast deployment — despite the department’s reliance on spreadsheets and sticky notes to schedule visits — is easier in small communities.

“There is a sense of community in our smaller, rural counties that we’re all kind of looking out for each other. And when you tell someone, ‘Hey, we need to vaccinate these folks first,’ they’re quick to say, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Smith said.

Hayden, a town of about 2,000 in northwestern Colorado, is the kind of place where, within hours of Haven staffers posting online that they were looking for a grill, workers from the hardware store delivered one at no charge. It’s the kind of town where locals have come throughout the pandemic to serenade Haven residents with guitar, flute and violin performances outside the windows. When the virus hit The Haven, eventually killing two of its 15 residents, locals paraded past the facility in their cars, taped with balloons and signs that said “We love you” and “Get well soon.”

After all the heartache, isolation and waiting, newly vaccinated resident Rosa Lawton, 70, is ready to bust out of The Haven. She said she expected to get her second vaccine dose Jan. 28.

“I hope to be able to go shopping at Walmart and City Market and go to the bank, the library, the senior center. … I won’t stop,” she said, laughing. “Right now, we’re restricted to the building.”

Even after getting everyone vaccinated, though, assisted living locations won’t be able to fling open the doors quite yet. State and federal officials need to give the OK, said Doug Farmer, president and CEO of the Colorado Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities in the state. Still, the combination of vaccines, repeated negative covid tests and a lower level of virus spread in the community is allowing some facilities the peace of mind to crack the doors open just a bit in the meantime.

Until recently, Lawton and others at The Haven were playing bingo perched in their doorways, with a staff member moving down the hallway calling out numbers. Lawton said she could see about four others from her door, but not her friends Sally, Ruth or Louise. Now, they’re back in the dining room, with one person to a table and playing with sanitized chips.

“We can see each other and we’re closer together and we can hear the caller better,” said Lawton. “It’s just more of a group experience.”

Residents can now gather in the common areas, wearing masks, to play the piano and do target practice with foam dart guns. And the excursion to a movie theater next month will be the first field trip in nearly a year. (Lawton is rooting for watching “The Sound of Music.”)

“It just feels overall lighter,” said Adrienne Idsal, director of The Haven, hours before receiving her second vaccine dose.

Fraser Engerman, a spokesperson with Walgreens, confirmed that some counties moved ahead with vaccinations before the company received its allocation, and said the company is on track to complete vaccinations at all Colorado long-term care facilities that they were responsible for by the end of January. Monica Prinzing, a CVS Health spokesperson, said that her company has completed first doses for all 119 skilled-nursing facilities in Colorado and more than half the assisted living sites it partnered with, adding that their team is working closely with facilities to “remain on track to meet our program commitments.”

Along the state’s eastern edge, where Colorado meets Kansas, a pair of counties is already done vaccinating long-term care residents, according to Meagan Hillman, the public health director for Prowers and Kiowa counties.

In December, Hillman and her colleagues started to wonder just how Walgreens was going to get the shots to their four local long-term care facilities.

“Out here, I’m two-plus hours from the closest Walgreens, and I don’t even know where a CVS is,” she said. “It’s such a huge operation and we just were worried, you know. Oftentimes the little guy gets left out or left for last.”

Hillman said she and her colleagues managed to secure Pfizer vaccines from a local hospital.

“We have been so beat down in public health that I actually went and did the vaccination clinic,” said Hillman, who is also a physician assistant. “We just needed that — a good, heart-swelling thing to do.”

She said it indeed helped boost her spirits to give the shots herself. “Finally, I feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train,” she said.

If I Have Cancer, Dementia or MS, Should I Get the Covid Vaccine?

As public demand grows for limited supplies of covid-19 vaccines, questions remain about the vaccines’ appropriateness for older adults with various illnesses. Among them are cancer patients receiving active treatment, dementia patients near the end of their lives and people with autoimmune conditions.

Recently, a number of readers have asked me whether older relatives with these conditions should be immunized. This is a matter for medical experts, and I solicited advice from several. All strongly suggested that people with questions contact their doctors and discuss their individual medical circumstances.

Experts’ advice may be helpful since states are beginning to offer vaccines to adults over age 65, 70 or 75, including those with serious underlying medical conditions. Twenty-eight states are doing so, according to the latest survey by The New York Times.

Q: My 80-year-old mother has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. For weeks, her oncologist would not tell her “yes” or “no” about the vaccine. After much pressure, he finally responded: “It won’t work for you, your immune system is too compromised to make antibodies.” She asked if she can take the vaccine anyway, just in case it might offer a little protection, and he told her he was done discussing it with her.

First, some basics. Older adults, in general, responded extremely well to the two covid-19 vaccines that have received special authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. In large clinical trials sponsored by drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccines achieved substantial protection against significant illness, with efficacy for older adults ranging from 87% to 94%.

But people 65 and older undergoing cancer treatment were not included in these studies. As a result, it’s not known what degree of protection they might derive.

Dr. Tobias Hohl, chief of the infectious diseases service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, suggested that three factors should influence patients’ decisions: Are vaccines safe, will they be effective, and what is my risk of becoming severely ill from covid-19? Regarding risk, he noted that older adults are the people most likely to become severely ill and perish from covid, accounting for about 80% of deaths to date — a compelling argument for vaccination.

Regarding safety, there is no evidence at this time that cancer patients are more likely to experience side effects from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines than other people. Generally, “we are confident that these vaccines are safe for [cancer] patients,” including older patients, said Dr. Armin Shahrokni, a Memorial Sloan Kettering geriatrician and oncologist.

The exception, which applies to everyone, not just cancer patients: people who are allergic to covid-19 vaccine components or who experience severe allergic responses after getting a first shot shouldn’t get covid-19 vaccines.

Efficacy is a consideration for patients whose underlying cancer or treatment suppresses their immune systems. Notably, patients with blood and lymph node cancers may experience a blunted response to vaccines, along with patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Even in this case, “we have every reason to believe that if their immune system is functioning at all, they will respond to the vaccine to some extent,” and that’s likely to be beneficial, said Dr. William Dale, chair of supportive care medicine and director of the Center for Cancer Aging Research at City of Hope, a comprehensive cancer center in Los Angeles County.

Balancing the timing of cancer treatment and immunization may be a consideration in some cases. For those with serious disease who “need therapy as quickly as possible, we should not delay [cancer] treatment because we want to preserve immune function and vaccinate them” against covid, said Hohl of Memorial Sloan Kettering.

One approach might be trying to time covid vaccination “in between cycles of chemotherapy, if possible,” said Dr. Catherine Liu, a professor in the vaccine and infectious disease division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

In new guidelines published late last week, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, an alliance of cancer centers, urged that patients undergoing active treatment be prioritized for vaccines as soon as possible. A notable exception:  Patients who’ve received stem cell transplants or bone marrow transplants should wait at least three months before getting vaccines, the group recommended.

The American Cancer Society’s chief medical and scientific officer, Dr. William Cance, said his organization is “strongly in favor of cancer patients and cancer survivors getting vaccinated, particularly older adults.” Given vaccine shortages, he also recommended that cancer patients who contract covid-19 get antibody therapies as soon as possible, if their oncologists believe they’re good candidates. These infusion therapies, from Eli Lilly and Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, rely on synthetic immune cells to help fight infections.

Q: Should my 97-year-old mom, in a nursing home with dementia, even get the covid vaccine?

The federal government and all 50 states recommend covid vaccines for long-term care residents, most of whom have Alzheimer’s disease or other types of cognitive impairment. This is an effort to stem the tide of covid-related illness and death that has swept through nursing homes and assisted living facilities — 37% of all covid deaths as of mid-January.

The Alzheimer’s Association also strongly encourages immunization against covid-19, “both for people [with dementia] living in long-term care and those living in the community, said Beth Kallmyer, vice president of care and support.

“What I think this question is trying to ask is ‘Will my loved one live long enough to see the benefit of being vaccinated?’” said Dr. Joshua Uy, medical director at a Philadelphia nursing home and geriatric fellowship director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Potential benefits include not becoming ill or dying from covid-19, having visits from family or friends, engaging with other residents and taking part in activities, Uy suggested. (This is a partial list.) Since these benefits could start accruing a few weeks after residents in a facility are fully immunized, “I would recommend the vaccine for a 97-year-old with significant dementia,” Uy said.

Minimizing suffering is a key consideration, said Dr. Michael Rafii, associate professor of clinical neurology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “Even if a person has end-stage dementia, you want to do anything you can to reduce the risk of suffering. And this vaccine provides individuals with a good deal of protection from suffering severe covid,” he said.

“My advice is that everyone should get vaccinated, regardless of what stage of dementia they’re in,” Rafii said. That includes dementia patients at the end of their lives in hospice care, he noted.

If possible, a loved one should be at hand for reassurance since being approached by someone wearing a mask and carrying a needle can evoke anxiety in dementia patients. “Have the person administering the vaccine explain who they are, what they’re doing and why they’re wearing a mask in clear, simple language,” Rafii suggested.

Q: I’m 80 and I have Type 2 diabetes and an autoimmune disease. Should I get the vaccine?

There are two parts to this question. The first has to do with “comorbidities” — having more than one medical condition. Should older adults with comorbidities get covid vaccines?

Absolutely, because they’re at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from covid, said Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious diseases specialist and co-chair of the Mayo Clinic’s covid-19 vaccine rollout.

“Pfizer’s and Moderna’s studies specifically looked at people who were older and had comorbidities, and they showed that vaccine response was similar to [that of] people who were younger,” she noted.

The second part has to do with autoimmune illnesses such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, which also put people at higher risk. The concern here is that a vaccine might trigger inflammatory responses that could exacerbate these conditions.

Philippa Marrack, chair of the department of immunology and genomic medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, said there’s no scientifically rigorous data on how patients with autoimmune conditions respond to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

So far, reasons for concern haven’t surfaced. “More than 100,000 people have gotten these vaccines now, including some who probably had autoimmune disease, and there’s been no systematic reporting of problems,” Marrack said. If patients with autoimmune disorders are really worried, they should talk with their physicians about delaying immunization until other covid vaccines with different formulations become available, she suggested.

Last week, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommended that most patients with multiple sclerosis — another serious autoimmune condition — get the Pfizer or Moderna covid vaccines.

“The vaccines are not likely to trigger an MS relapse or to worsen your chronic MS symptoms. The risk of getting COVID-19 far outweighs any risk of having an MS relapse from the vaccine,” it said in a statement.

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.