As Lynchburg-area officials plan out COVID-19 immunizations for different sectors of the community, a number of health care workers remain unvaccinated by choice.
It’s been almost a month since the first round of vaccination doses arrived in Lynchburg, intended for health workers, nursing home workers and nursing home residents. Since then, multiple sites have been inoculating those residents and workers: front-line emergency workers first, followed by others in health professions.
Workers and volunteers at the Free Clinic of Central Virginia and its cousin site, Community Access Network, were being immunized by appointment at the Free Clinic on Monday. Among them was Beth Walthall, a dental assistant working through the Community Access Network.
She said she never had concerns about the vaccines and was encouraged by hearing few complaints from those who’ve received it in the past month, adding, “I’m a person who takes the flu shot every year.”
In seeing patients, Walthall said a lot have expressed doubt in the vaccines “but it’s just talk, because I think when it’s their turn they’re going to absolutely get it.”
Not all health care workers share her mindset.
Christina Delzingaro, Free Clinic of Central Virginia CEO, said about half of 300-some staff and volunteers between CAN and the Free Clinic have declined to be vaccinated.
Those who’ve refused to get immunized thus far don’t necessarily have “anti-vaccine” sentiments — Delzingaro said many are taking a “wait-and-see” approach reflective of national trends. She estimated about two-thirds of the unvaccinated cohort seem to have that approach, while another third seem to not have any interest.
Much of that third, uninterested group appear to have “unfounded concerns” about the vaccine’s safety, she said.
“We don’t know everything there is to know about it, but we do know that it’s safe and effective — and we certainly do know that it is better than contracting COVID,” she said.
According to Virginia Department of Health data, 6,467 people have been vaccinated in the district thus far, which comes out to about 2.5% of the population.
Last week, Centra Health CEO Dr. Andy Mueller estimated about 4,300 employees had been vaccinated, which is a little more than half the provider’s workforce. In news conferences, their officials have acclaimed the vaccines’ safety and reported few cases of mild side effects that’ve been treated with over-the-counter meds.
A study last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated 27% of survey-takers said they probably or definitely wouldn’t get the vaccine, which is down from 34% from results three months prior.
Among KFF respondents last month, about 29% of health care workers said they wouldn’t get it.
Mistrust of the vaccine by Black adults is also evident in the survey, with 35% expressing some hesitancy compared to 26% among white and Hispanic people, and Black respondents were 50/50 on whether the vaccine development process took their specific needs into account.
Delzingaro noted skepticism likely stems at least in part from medicine’s unethical past in research and testing on Black people: from the infamous Tuskegee Study, where white researchers lied to Black men about treatment, to involuntary sterilization of Black women and research into Henrietta Lacks’ cells without compensation or consent.
“It is not the case this time and I hope it never will be the case, will be again,” she said. “… When you also look at the extremely poor outcomes for people of color who do contract COVID, it is just vitally important that they set that aside for the moment and consider getting the vaccine.”
As the Free Clinic and other providers plan out vaccine distribution to their patients as part of the state’s next rollout phase, that mistrust is something they hope to quash.
Delzingaro said including the vaccine in a primary care visit is a key approach, with patients getting direct advice from a practitioner they know and trust.
The Kaiser Family Foundation survey backs up that notion, too: results indicated 85% of people trust their doctor’s opinion on the vaccines — more than the 73% of people who trust the CDC.
Eleven of Virginia’s 35 health districts are scheduled to start Phase 1b of vaccinations this week, where they’re offered to a list of different essential workers, people living in certain concentrated living situations and those 75 years old and older.
The Central Virginia Health District, composed of Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell, is not among them, but VDH expects the entire state to move into that phase by the end of the month.