Many Colorado Long-Term Care Workers Refuse COVID-19 Vaccine, Though Officials Insist It's Safe
This weekend, 10,000 people aged 70 or older are expected to receive a COVID-19 vaccine during a mass, drive-through vaccination event in the parking lots outside Denver’s Coors Field. But the rush to get a coronavirus vaccine has not been matched by some health workers who care for elderly and frail residents at long-term care facilities.
Roughly half the workers decided to skip the vaccine when it was offered during clinics that visited their facilities, according to Doug Farmer, the president and CEO of the Colorado Health Care Association, which represents nursing and assisted living facilities around the state.
“There was this reserve of folks that were saying, ‘Look. I’m not opposed to a vaccine, but this one, it was so fast, it was politicized, I’m not sure,’” Farmer said.
Walgreens and CVS have administered the vaccine in two doses at nursing homes, assisted living and other long-term care facilities. The vast majority have received the initial dose. Second doses are expected to be completed by the end of February, according to state officials.
Farmer’s estimate is anecdotal and state officials are not tracking how many long-term care workers have refused the vaccine. Administrators at nursing homes, speaking to KUNC on background, confirmed Farmer’s estimate. The best case KUNC heard of in reporting this story was a nursing home where 25% of workers declined the vaccine.
The situation has dire implications for residents at long-term care facilities, which have been hard-hit throughout the pandemic. Roughly 40% of the state’s deaths due to COVID-19 have taken place at the facilities. There are active outbreaks at 258 nursing, combined care and assisted living facilities, according to state data for the week ending Jan. 28. In those facilities, officials have tracked 9,818 cases among residents and workers, along with 651 deaths, three of which were workers.
Yet as more than 470,000 vaccinations have been administered in efforts around Colorado, federal officials have tracked just one possible death in the state that could be associated with a COVID-19 vaccine. The death was a patient dependent on oxygen, suffering from a range of health issues, who had refused dialysis, according to a report filed with vaccination safety officials. Cases like that are being monitored and investigated by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“COVID-19 vaccines were rigorously studied during clinical trials and will continue to be monitored now that they are being used by the public,” the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office told KUNC in a statement. “CDC has several robust monitoring systems in place to watch for adverse events that may not have been seen in clinical trials. If an unexpected adverse event is seen, experts quickly study it to assess whether it is a true safety concern.”
In all, 206 possible adverse reactions have been reported so far in Colorado. KUNC did a keyword analysis of the side-effects. The most common complaints included redness or soreness at the injection site, along with aches, fever, dizziness, headache and nausea.
Those are the same symptoms the CDC is tracking nationally. Officials said that most people experience no symptoms. For those that do, symptoms “typically don’t last long and are signs that the body is building protection” against the coronavirus.
Nationally, federal officials have so far tracked 7,804 possible adverse reactions during the administration of some 16 million COVID-19 vaccines.
“At this time, CDC does not see any unexpected adverse events. All observed adverse events are comparable to other vaccines,” the CDC said in its statement, adding that vaccination drives are critical to ending the pandemic.
That is why state officials and groups like AARP Colorado, which represents older residents, are telling people to get vaccinated.
“Our official position is that we have from the beginning urged vaccine makers to produce a safe product and produce as much of it as possible,” said AARP Colorado director Bob Murphy.
While the message from public health advocates is that any risks associated with vaccines are far lower than the risk associated with getting the coronavirus, efforts to get Colorado’s long-term care workers to see it that way are ongoing with the lives of residents potentially in the balance.
Throughout the pandemic, public health officials have identified long-term care workers as a source of the virus’ transmission. Some asymptomatic carriers may unwittingly infect patients as even pre-shift screenings, like temperature checks, won’t catch them. AARP Colorado has tracked months of chronic shortages of personal protective equipment at facilities, like masks that would help protect patients from any infected workers.
It appears facility managers can do little but educate workers about the benefits of vaccines. While employers can require that employees take certain vaccinations, that does not extend to the COVID-19 vaccines because of their federal emergency-use status, according to an analysis by LeadingAge, a group for senior living providers. The organization is watching long-term care facilities, however, to see if any take disciplinary actions against workers who refuse COVID-19 vaccines.
Farmer, with the Colorado Health Care Association, said there is a seeing-is-believing factor for some workers. When workers see that peers who were vaccinated report no side effects, he said they’re more open to being vaccinated themselves.
“People are seeing that and then I’m hearing, again anecdotally, some of our buildings went from 50% uptake to (65% to 75%) in that neighborhood,” Farmer said. “So that’s not an insignificant uptick and we’re hopeful that moving along we can convince more and more people that it is the smart thing to do.”
Officials with Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment are also working to address vaccine concerns among long-term care workers. In a statement, the department said it is “coordinating with various partners active in the (long-term care) space to provide guidance and educational resources in plain language to address any vaccine hesitancy in this particular population.”
One nursing home administrator had their own plain language for the situation, saying that they are simply telling workers who don’t get vaccinated that if they pass on the virus to a patient, it could kill them.