Chicago health care workers will have an important choice to make very soon: whether or not to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
If the first vaccine wins federal approval this week, the first doses could arrive in Illinois in the next week. The much-anticipated vaccine marks a significant moment, setting a record for development of a vaccine, and could be the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
But there is some skepticism. A national poll conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the fall showed about 63% of health care workers are ready to be vaccinated. Still, like many in the general population, some health care workers say they worry about being the first to receive such a quickly developed shot.
Many medical professionals WBEZ spoke with said that while they understand the concerns, it’s important for health care workers to roll up their sleeves as soon as possible.
Shannon Rotolo, a pharmacist at the University of Chicago Medicine, is on board and anxiously awaiting the email from her employer that will tell her when she can sign up to receive the vaccine.
“I am ready to hit refresh, making sure that I get my slot and am able to get the vaccine as soon as it’s offered to me,” Rotolo said.
Limits of doses and the right to choose
As a practical matter, nobody can be required to take the vaccine under an emergency use authorization. Health care workers will have a choice and the state has no plans to mandate a COVID vaccine anytime soon, said Illinois Director of Public Health Dr. Ngozi Ezike.
“The more [people] we get [vaccinated], the better we are,” Ezike said. “The less virus can move around because it’s struggling to find anybody to infect.
Ezike has said that she hopes medical professionals will step up, however, and show everyone else in the state that choosing the vaccine is much safer than going without it.
In fact, hospitals have been making plans to vaccinate their employees for weeks now. With the first expected shipment of doses estimated to be about 109,000, there will not be enough doses of the vaccine for the state’s 1.1 million health care workers.
In Chicago alone, there are 400,000 health care workers and just 23,000 doses expected in the first wave of shipments. By the end of December, Chicago’s Commissioner of Public Health said the city expects to have gotten between 100,000 and 150,000 doses. That’s only enough for about a quarter of all health care workers.
While supply is limited, hospitals will have to determine who amongst their staff will get the very first doses.
Despite concerns, some see a duty
Rotolo, the U of C pharmacist, knows a lot about the science behind how vaccines get made and understands what constitutes safe and effective trials.
“My job is understanding the drug information, because I want to be able to speak about it really clearly to my patients who aren’t able to dig through that data in the same way,” she said.
The leading COVID-19 vaccines take a new approach using something called messenger RNA. If approved, they would be the first ever mRNA vaccines on the market and would break records for fastest development and approval.
It’s an impressive scientific feat. But while some health care workers see the speed and novelty of these vaccines as a huge advancement, others want to see more data and information before getting a shot in the arm.
Dr. Shikha Jain is an oncologist at the University of Illinois Cancer Center and plans to get the vaccine as soon as she’s offered one, but understands why some colleagues are hesitant.
“There are a lot of people who … may not feel comfortable getting the vaccine because they feel like maybe it was rolled out too quickly for political gain,” Jain said, adding that anecdotally, she’s heard less skepticism since the election ended.
Politics aside, Dr. Ali Khan, Executive Medical Director at Oak Street Health said the concerns of hospital staff are valid, considering what happened to them in the spring when the pandemic first hit.
“We sent people in for weeks and weeks and weeks without the right kinds of protections,” Khan said. “We gave mixed messaging on things like masking. We set ourselves up for failure on this.”
But both Jain and Khan are part of a group of medical professionals called IMPACT that sprouted up early in the pandemic to elevate the voices of health care workers and advocate for evidence-based solutions to COVID-19. They said it’s their duty as health care workers to be vaccinated first.
“This is a civic responsibility and a professional responsibility,” Khan said. “We have to lead the charge here because we need to get to a place where we can restore an economy, where we can restore society, where we get back to normal, where we’re not all hiding up behind Zoom.”
Jain’s message to her friends and colleagues is about risks and benefits.
“We don’t know what the long-term effects of having COVID are either,” she said. “You don’t want to get COVID.”
How medical professionals’ vaccinations may influence others
The two leading vaccines under consideration for emergency use do not have pieces of the live virus in them. They both require two doses and on Tuesday, the FDA released in-depth data from the Pfizer trial.
Chicago’s Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the data “looks very, very good,” and is thinking ahead about how to talk about vaccine safety and side effects when more doses are available to the general public.
“We have a plan where we’ll be pairing health care workers who work in particular zip codes, who have been vaccinated, who are willing to be vaccine champions to do some of the explaining, pairing them up with trusted community voices,” Arwady said.
Outreach to low-income, communities of color will not be easy. That’s because the very populations hit the hardest by COVID-19 have historically not trusted the medical community or the government. There’s a long history of experimenting on low-income, communities of color that has led to a general distrust of vaccines. Mix in a resurging anti-vaccination movement and the possible end of the pandemic may still be months or years away.
Dr. Laura Zimmerman, a physician at Rush University Medical Center, said her patients are the top reason she plans to be vaccinated as soon as she’s offered the chance.
“To be able to say, ‘Look, I got it. I got this vaccine. I did fine with it. Yes, there were a couple side effects, but it wasn’t bad.’ That’s what I’m hoping to be able to say to my patients,” Zimmerman said.
“Vaccines are one of our most — if not the most — effective public health intervention in modern history,” Zimmerman said. “I believe in vaccines and I’m tired. I’m exhausted in terms of worrying about what kind of exposure I’m bringing home to my family.”
If federal officials approve emergency use for the first COVID-19 vaccine in the coming days, hospital workers like Zimmerman could be offered their first of two shots by Christmas.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.