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Many Nursing Home Employees Are Skeptical Of COVID-19 Vaccines

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The CDC says vaccine hesitancy is dropping, that means fewer people are saying they won't take the COVID vaccine, and yet some people are still suspicious, including some people you might not expect. Dr. Asif Merchant works in a cluster of four nursing homes outside of Boston. He's also an adviser to the governor of Massachusetts. He told me that some of his nursing home colleagues are still hesitant to take the vaccine despite everything they've seen since last spring.

ASIF MERCHANT: It was hard. I mean, we were still trying to understand the disease, the transmission, what the best practices are. This was all new. And it was almost learning to fly in the middle of a flight or building a plane in the middle of a flight. It was extremely difficult. Patients were falling sick. Staff was calling out. Some staff was sick. And then you had almost a perfect storm where there were very few staff members taking care of multiple, multiple sick residents. And because it was so busy with such poor staffing levels, it was extremely difficult, and it was a very painful sight.

MARTIN: Did you lose patients, Dr. Merchant?

MERCHANT: Yes. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of patients during the last year. And it was heartbreaking because you would see somebody who was sick, and we wouldn't get results in time. You know, in the beginning of the pandemic, testing was done only if somebody was symptomatic. And many of these residents were not symptomatic initially. But then they suddenly - when they got symptomatic, it was a sudden crash, almost like falling off the edge of a cliff.

MARTIN: You've been a doctor for many years. You've obviously lost patients before throughout your career. How different was COVID, though?

MERCHANT: Being a geriatrician, working with the elderly, I see a lot of death. But this was four or five times of that. It was at such a rapid pace. You know, you didn't have time to sit and think. If I just sat and thought about it, I would have broken down. It was that bad.

MARTIN: And then as we headed into the winter, we learned, all of us basically at the same time, that vaccines were being approved. You had some colleagues then who wanted to get the vaccine. But you have also written publicly that you had many colleagues who did not want to get the vaccine, which seems surprising to me. What was happening?

MERCHANT: It is surprising, but not really because in early 2020, the whole COVID pandemic was very political in many ways about different treatments, you know, drugs that were not really studied for it being pushed by certain politicians and talking about vaccines before the election in November. And it almost seemed like scientists are being strong-armed into getting something out and available to the public. And it created a lot of mistrust. I was skeptical at one point because, you know, no other vaccine has been developed this quickly in the history of modern medicine. It seemed, rough estimates, it would take at least a couple of years before we got a successful vaccine. Now, couple that with the political jargon and verbiage that was spread that we'll have a vaccine before the election. It seemed like more of a political stunt than real science. And I think that was why I was skeptical.

MARTIN: When you had conversations with your colleagues and you spoke to people who said, uh-uh, I'm not going to take this thing, what were some of the reasons that they gave?

MERCHANT: There were a lot of reasons, and a lot of it could be boiled down to mistrust. They didn't really trust the science behind it. They didn't trust the politicians and government. You know, who works in nursing homes and who are the CNAs and nurses? You know, in Massachusetts at least, we see a large amount of Haitian Creole-speaking co-workers that I have or Blacks and Africans who work as CNAs or nurses. And they have an inbuilt mistrust of the system due to historic reasons.

Also, they were concerned about how can a vaccine be developed this quickly when there's no cure for many of the other illnesses, certain cancers, even influenza. The influenza vaccine is not very effective every year when they take it. So there's a lot of historical perspective to some of their concerns.

MARTIN: At the end of the day, do you believe that you're convincing people that the vaccine is safe?

MERCHANT: I certainly think I have made a difference.

MARTIN: Dr. Merchant, thank you so much for your time today.

MERCHANT: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Dr. Asif Merchant specializes in geriatric medicine and teaches at Tufts. He also works at a nursing home community outside of Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.