Hospital workers ready to get COVID-19 vaccine, some long-term care staff a bit more hesitant

Thousands of McHenry County residents and workers are at the front of the line for the COVID-19 vaccine but not all of them are ready or willing to get the shot.

At the three hospital systems serving McHenry County, the early days of vaccine distribution have been filled with excitement, representatives said, but some local long-term care facility directors said their staff have been a bit more hesitant to roll up their sleeves.

“The way I look at it is, we’re in here everyday with residents who are our most vulnerable population and, most of us who work here, we cannot in good conscience do anything other than what’s best for those residents,” said Chrystal Maxwell, the marking director for Heritage Woods and White Oaks, a nursing home in Huntley.

Maxwell said Thursday she will get the vaccine when it is offered at their facility Jan. 23, but added that she can see “both sides of the coin” because of how fast everything has been moving.

About 50% to 60% of the staff at county-run Valley Hi Nursing Home indicated that they were unwilling to get the COVID-19 vaccine when the facility started offering its first doses Thursday, Jan. 7, Administrator Tom Annarella said last week.

Over at Melody Living Lake in the Hills, an assisted living facility, Executive Director Maria Drosos said the rate of vaccine hesitancy among her staff is about the same, although they do not have nearly as many employees as Valley Hi.

Jeremy Rutter, chief clinical officer of Heritage Ministries, the parent company of Hearthstone Manor in Woodstock, said the company has consistently had about 25% of staff and 75% of residents getting the vaccine across the senior living facilities it owns nationwide.

Executive Director of Heritage Woods Megan Benzel said it seems that most of the facility’s 66 staff and 90 residents are excited to get the vaccine but said she won’t begin handing out consent forms to nail down their numbers until Monday. Thus far, Benzel said she has only spoken with one staff member who is under the age of 18 whose parents said they are not ready for their daughter to get the vaccine yet.

Meanwhile, representatives of Mercyhealth and Advocate Aurora Health, two area hospital systems, said they were encouraged by the number of their staff that felt ready to get the vaccine.

“For the most part, our providers and staff are enthusiastic and were very eager to receive it,” Trish Reed, public relations specialist for Mercyhealth, said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

While Michelle Green, a spokesperson for Northwestern Medicine, said it is too soon to tell what the rates of vaccine hesitancy might look like, Dr. Irfan Hafiz, infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer for Northwestern Medicine hospitals in Huntley, McHenry and Woodstock, said there was a a palpable “buzz in the air” after he and his colleagues got the vaccine last week.

When asked what he would say to those who may be nervous to get vaccinated, Hafiz said: “It’s a great time to be alive. Science matters. It does work.”

Annarella, Valley Hi’s director, said he was surprised by the percentage of staff unwilling to get the vaccine when asked, especially in light of the facility experiencing its first major outbreak of COVID-19 in December, which he described as “like being in a war zone.”

“You would think that having it be so fresh in their minds would change that number a little bit, but it hasn’t,” he said in the Dec. 31 interview. “So what I’m hoping is that the people that are on the fence see that round one goes very smoothly and they jump in in rounds two and three.”

To ensure doses aren’t wasted, Melody Living Lake in the Hills sent out consent forms ahead of time, Drosos said. The vaccine comes in vials of ten doses and must be used once they are opened.

Out of her 50 employees, Drosos said only 11 returned their consent forms and were vaccinated last Tuesday. This could be due, in part, to staff being notified of when the vaccines would be offered on relatively short notice after McHenry County’s shipment was allocated as a few others came the day of to ask for a vaccine, she said.

Both Annarella and Drosos said vaccine hesitancy among staff is a stark contrast to the high amount of residents who are ready and willing to be vaccinated.

Of the 40 vaccine doses administered at Melody Living last Tuesday, 11 were given to staff and 29 to residents, Drosos said. Melody Living currently has 30 residents.

The next round of vaccinations at Melody Living will take place on or around Jan. 28, when those who have already been vaccinated will receive their next dose. Drosos said she expects more of her staff will feel comfortable getting their first shots then as well.

“I think people wanted to see how the first initial push went and how everybody reacts to it,” she said.

Dr. Viquar Mundozie, a family medicine physician with Mercyhealth Harvard South, said Wednesday that he and his team couldn’t wait to get the vaccine. On Thursday, Mercyhealth took a video of Mundozie being immunized in an attempt to encourage others to follow suit.

“Human nature is to have a little fear when something new comes comes around and it could be anything not just the vaccine,” he said. “Really you have to look at the data, the facts, what the professionals are seeing. People can go talk to their doctors.”

For those who may be concerned about potential side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, Mundozie said what doctors are discovering around the potential long-term effects of an actual COVID-19 illness outweigh any muscle soreness or mild, cold-like symptoms that the vaccine could cause.

“I mean there’s no comparison between the disease, what we have seen, and the vaccination,” he said. “It makes sense, especially if you’re getting exposed, to get vaccinated.”

Green said Northwestern is working to present information to staff and answer any questions they might have about the vaccine, adding that they have received some questions from employees who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

“We are encouraged by all of those who have signed up to get [the vaccine] to protect themselves and others,” Advocate Aurora Health spokesperson Kelsey Sopchyk said in an emailed statement.

Advocate Aurora Health has vaccinated over 30,000 employees so far, Sopchyk said.

While McHenry County hospitals did not begin vaccinating staff until last week after the county received its first shipment of the Moderna vaccine, Advocate Aurora Health hospitals like Advocate Good Shepherd began vaccinating staff Dec. 17.

The Illinois Department of Public Health encourages anyone over the age of 16 to get the vaccine once they are eligible, a spokeswoman said.

“At this time, there is no federal or state mandate requiring COVID-19 vaccination and decisions regarding immunization at workplaces are up to the employer,” department spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

“We will continue to share accurate, science-based information to dispel myths, misinformation, and conspiracy theories,” Arnold said.

Annarella said a state mandate requiring health care workers and long-term care facility staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19 would be somewhat of a relief for him. It would take the burden of trying to get the Valley Hi population to reach the necessary 70% herd immunity rate off of his shoulders, he said last week.

Valley Hi, Melody Living, Heritage Woods and Hearthstone Manor all are not requiring staff to get the vaccine, representatives said. Vaccines are also optional for staff of Northwestern Medicine, Advocate Aurora Health and Mercyhealth.

Kelli Duncan

Kelli Duncan is a reporter for the Northwest Herald covering county government as well as the communities of Huntley, Lake in the Hills, Marengo and Harvard. She has previously covered local politics, immigration and feature stories.