Firefighters get vaccinated at Watsonville Hospital on Tuesday.
Vaccine Watch

28% of county hospital workers offered vaccine have yet to take it

Those who didn’t get the Pfizer or Moderna shots include some who were out of town or were ill and had to defer, said Dr. David Ghilarducci, the county emergency medical services director. But others have declined the shots, apparently wanting to see if side effects develop.

Three out of four health care workers and medical staff at Dominican and Watsonville hospitals in Santa Cruz County who have been offered the coronavirus vaccine so far have received it, according to county health officials.

Both hospitals are reporting 72% vaccine acceptance rates as of Tuesday, said Dr. David Ghilarducci, the county emergency medical services director.

The 28% who didn’t get it yet or declined to receive it include some who were out of town, or who were ill and had to defer. “So there was some other logistical reasons why” they have not gotten it yet, Ghilarducci said. “They’re not necessarily anti-vaxxers.”

Vaccine Watch

Lookout’s Vaccine Watch, the latest on vaccine distribution countywide, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

Some “don’t want to be first” and want to see how it goes, Ghilarducci said. Others are just cautious. And some have concerns because they’re pregnant.

Although only limited data is available so far and studies in people who are pregnant are planned, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that pregnant women can be vaccinated and experts believe the vaccine is unlikely to pose a specific risk.

Santa Cruz County health care workers who choose to turn down the vaccine aren’t alone. The Los Angeles Times has identified multiple health systems where the vaccine acceptance rate is far lower than at hospitals here.

While he doesn’t have a benchmark necessarily, Ghilarducci said he is happy with the vaccination rate of health care workers early on, noting that 70 percent is what officials have been targeting to reach herd immunity.

“I think that’s a good starting number given all the hurdles,” he said.

Ghilarducci said he expects the numbers to “continue to creep up,” adding that some people who are in lower tiers of vaccination prioritization have been clamoring to get it.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and how it will be distributed in Santa Cruz County....

The focus is to get the vaccine out to everyone as fast as possible and then “nibble” on the 28 percent of health care workers and medical staff who have not received it yet, he said.

Dan Brothman — CEO of Halsen Healthcare, the company that owns the Watsonville Community Hospital — said his hospital is focused on employees, medical staff and first responders. “Plenty of people want the vaccine and (our) efforts are to do as many of those as possible,” he said in a text message to Lookout.

Dominican Hospital President Dr. Nanette Mickiewicz said in a statement that preventing COVID-19 infections “is the most important way that we can protect each other and our staff, and ensure that Dominican Hospital can continue to provide care through the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 vaccines currently available have been shown to be safe and effective and we strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated when they can,” she said. “We are distributing the vaccine to our staff based on their risk of exposure, beginning with our patient-facing staff and clinicians.”

Mickiewicz said that so far the hospital has “already vaccinated the majority of our employees and affiliated physicians, and have also supported the vaccination of local ambulance paramedics and EMTs, and the staff of high-risk clinics and psychiatric providers.”

“The process of vaccinating our employees will continue for the next several weeks,” she added. “We also understand that some people may have questions about the new vaccines to prevent COVID-19, and we are doing everything we can to share data and evidence showing that the vaccines are safe and effective.”

Fire personnel numbers

Along with health care workers, some of the first to receive vaccinations have been first responders.

Close to 300 firefighters and EMTs in Santa Cruz County have been vaccinated so far, and 77 more signed up this week, according to Ghilarducci. That’s out of a total of somewhere in the neighborhood of 450, he said, which would put the acceptance rate at more than 80%.

David Ghilarducci
(Courtesy County of Santa Cruz)

It really depends on people’s media diets on how they’re gonna accept this.

— David Ghilarducci

Ghilarducci said officials have been talking about messaging when it comes to making sure as many people as possible take the vaccine. The concern, he said, lies more so with the general public.

“It really depends on people’s media diets on how they’re gonna accept this,” Ghilarducci said.

But vaccine skepticism has plagued hospitals across the state, too.

Fewer than half of the 700 hospital workers at St. Elizabeth Community Hospital in Tehama County who were eligible to receive the vaccine were willing to take it when it was first offered, the LA Times reported.

One in five frontline nurses and doctors at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills have declined the shot, the paper reported, and roughly 20-40 percent of L.A. County’s frontline workers who were offered the vaccine did not take it.

In Riverside County an estimated 50 percent of frontline workers have refused the vaccine. The Los Angeles Fire Department has offered Lyft and Airbnb gift cards to incentivize vaccination.

A fireman from Branciforte Fire gets vaccinated.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Although the vaccine doubts among some health care workers across the country have surprised researchers, the scientific evidence is clear regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccines following trials involving tens of thousands participants, including the elderly and people with chronic health conditions.

UC Santa Cruz expert weighs in

During a tele-town hall Tuesday night, hosted by Santa Cruz County Second District Supervisor Zach Friend, Rebecca DuBois, a professor of biomolecular engineering at UC Santa Cruz who has been studying infectious diseases for two decades, assured attendees that “no shortcuts were taken” in developing the vaccines.

The federal government’s efforts to produce and distribute vaccines, known as Operation Warp Speed, was an investment in vaccines, even ones that were not yet approved, she explained. It allowed the vaccines to be developed quicker instead of waiting for the results.

“And so this is not a faster pace in terms of testing it in clinical trials, but this is just producing more vaccines even before the end of the clinical trial,” DuBois said. “So this allowed that pace to go faster.”

Clinical trials, which first started in humans in April 2020, showed that the vaccine was safe and that the antibody response that people get was “very robust,” especially after the second dose, DuBois said.

“The antibody response that you can get from a vaccine can be even better than natural infection,” she said.

The studies conducted “really show how efficacious” the vaccine is, DuBois said, referring to the 95 percent efficacy in preventing COVID-19 reported for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

And the tens of thousands of people who received the vaccines during the clinical trials further brings confidence in their safety, she said. “There were no concerns about safety.”

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