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COVID-19 vaccines will be offered first to health care workers. But do they want them?

“This being such a new vaccine, there’s a lot that’s still unknown,” said one nurse who is hesitant to get the inoculation that’s expected to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA soon.

Stroger Hospital nurse Falguni Dave would like to see more data on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Stroger Hospital nurse Falguni Dave would like to see more data on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Mark Black/Sun-Times

A COVID-19 vaccine may be coming to Illinois as soon as next week but that doesn’t mean Falguni Dave, a nurse at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, will be lining up for a shot.

“Until we have better research on it I don’t think I would be ready to use it at this point,” said Dave, a medical-surgical unit nurse and a union steward for National Nurses United. “This being such a new vaccine, there’s a lot that’s still unknown.”

The government says health care workers should be among the first to receive COVID-19 shots but it’s unclear how many frontline personnel, including nurses, doctors and support staff, will actually agree to receive a vaccine. The city’s largest hospitals say they won’t mandate workers receive the vaccine, at least not initially.

There are two significant reasons why:

For one, it’s unclear how many vaccines will be distributed around the Chicago area early on but probably not enough to inoculate every health care worker and nursing home resident, the other priority group for the shots.

Secondly and importantly, hospital officials say that the vaccine candidates nearing release — one made by drug giant Pfizer and the other by biotech company Moderna — were tested at unprecedented speeds raising questions about long-term safety.

Early data from studies of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines show the therapies to be extremely effective and safe. Yet the research shows only months of results compared with years of analysis that is typically required for a vaccine approval. Pfizer’s candidate is expected to be the first to clear a government bar this week for what’s known as an emergency use authorization.

Hospitals polling employees

“We are extremely encouraged by what we know about the vaccines but we’re not in a position where we would mandate it,” Dr. Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of Infectious Diseases and Prevention at Advocate Aurora Health, said in a statement. “We want to have the opportunity to study it over at least the next several months. We’re still going to encourage as many people to get it as we can.”

Several hospitals said they’re polling employees to gauge interest in the vaccine. An internal survey of Loyola University Medical Center employees showed 70% of those who responded were interested in receiving the vaccine, a spokeswoman said.

Still, employees aren’t being pressured, according to several hospitals. “Because the vaccines are new, there are many other unknowns, including unanticipated physical reactions,” Rush University Medical Center said in a statement.

Rush and Loyola were among the first big Chicago hospitals to require their employees to get flu vaccines in 2009. Others followed. Advocate, the largest health system in Illinois, and Cook County Health, one of the country’s largest public health systems, both require flu shots, as do hospitals operated by Northwestern and University of Chicago. None of these hospitals are requiring that their workers get the COVID shots.

Expert: Employers can mandate vaccine

Legally, the hospitals likely would have a case to demand inoculation, one legal expert said.

“I can say with some confidence that if a health care provider requires a COVID vaccine and insisted on this as a condition of employment, they would likely prevail in a lawsuit,” said Michael Leroy, a professor of law at University of Illinois.

Some exceptions can be made for religious reasons or medical conditions, Leroy said.

Nationally, health care workers in hospitals get vaccinated for influenza at very high levels — more than 93% got shots during the last flu season. Local hospitals say they see high numbers among their employees. Cook County Health, for instance, has gotten more than 90% compliance among employees the last several years, a spokeswoman said.

Joseph Hernandez, a nurse at Weiss Memorial Hospital and president of the Illinois chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, said he plans to get vaccinated but he hears skepticism from his friends in health care who won’t be getting the shots.

“It makes sense for me personally but I do have nursing friends who are very vocal,” Hernandez said. “They ask, ‘Why do nurses have to be the first in line?’ They say: ‘There’s no vaccine for cancer, there’s no vaccine for AIDS. How did we get one for COVID so fast?’”

Doris Carroll, state president of the Illinois Nurses Association
Provided

Doris Carroll is bullish on Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine as she was part of a research team in Chicago who helped test the therapy.

Yet as the state president of the Illinois Nurses Association, Carroll doesn’t favor any mandatory requirement that forces her union members to be inoculated once a vaccine is available.

“I am very much in favor of this vaccine,” said Carroll, a clinical nurse at University of Illinois Chicago who assisted with the Moderna trial. “As president of the union, I certainly want to protect our members’ rights and, at this point in time, it’s not mandatory.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.