11 Investigates: What factors are at play for growing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

BUTLER COUNTY, Pa. — From businesses to schools, hospitals to hotels, concern over vaccine hesitancy is growing. It’s also an issue for a number of nursing home employees.

Only 120 of Pennsylvania’s nearly 700 facilities meet the state’s goal of having 75% of staff vaccinated.

More than 40% of all frontline staff workers at these facilities statewide have declined to get the vaccine. One Butler County facility opened its doors to 11 Investigates Angie Moreschi to find out why employees are so hesitant to get the coronavirus vaccine.

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Karli Wolfe is a licensed practical nurse at Quality Life Services (QLS) Chicora nursing home. She was working at the facility when COVID-19 claimed 18 lives at the facility last fall. “I’ve held people’s hands while they said goodbye to their loved ones who could not be here,” Wolfe told us. She even had her own bout with the virus, but she is still on the fence about getting vaccinated. “I wouldn’t get it if it was mandated today,” she said.

20-year-old Evan Gaugler is a nurse’s aide at QLS and a premed major at the University of Pittsburgh. He told 11 Investigates he’s young and healthy, and at a lower risk for serious illness, so he doesn’t want to get the vaccine. When asked about working in a nursing home around vulnerable people, Evan held up his mask and told 11 Investigates “I will protect myself and I will protect them.”

Changing Minds

11 Investigates talked with one QLS employee who was hesitant to get the vaccine at first but changed her mind a few months later. Licensed Practical Nurse Sally Fair got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine in the Spring during a clinic offered onsite at the facility.

“A little bit of a relief after I got it, because if it would come through the building again, I did feel worried that I’m gonna take it to my family or maybe give it to one of the residents.”

Fair caught COVID-19 last fall while caring for COVID patients at the facility.

“I wore everything (PPE), washed my hands and I still got it. I took it home and my boyfriend got it and we were both pretty sick,” she said.

With the Delta variant spreading, Sally says she worries about her 85-year old mom and wouldn’t want to be the one to give it to her.

On the flip side, Evan says his mom had COVID and she recovered, despite having underlying conditions, so he feels less pressure.

“My mother did fine with the virus,” he said. “So, I would assume I’m gonna be fine.”

The coronavirus is known to impact even healthy individuals with severe symptoms in a very random way, but Evan said that did not concern him.

Other reasons for hesitancy

Another key factor in Karli’s decision are concerns about any potential impact on fertility. “If I was to have a kid down the road, they might have some birth defect,” Karli said.

But the President of UPMC Magee Women’s Hospital Dr. Richard Beigi says ongoing studies show there is no evidence the vaccine impacts fertility or healthy pregnancy outcomes.

“Let me just be very clear, there’s no data to substantiate those concerns. Zero. And there’s quite a bit of info that negate those concerns,” Beigi says.

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Another factor causing vaccine hesitancy is the speed with which it was developed and approved.

“This is one of the fastest approved vaccines in the history of the world,” Evan said, citing the speedy process as one of his concerns.

The COVID-19 vaccine was authorized under emergency use quicker than expected, but the Food and Drug Administration says it did not skip any steps in the approval. The FDA says the enormous number of people working on the vaccine made it possible to expedite the process.

PA Nursing Homes have Lower Vax Rate than General Public

The federal government requires all nursing homes to report their vaccination rates for staff and residents. In Pennsylvania, the average vaccination rate among nursing home staff who are fully vaccinated is 57%. That’s lower than the statewide average for all Pennsylvanians, which is 63%.

QLS administrator Kory Tack says they have worked hard to convince more employees to get the vaccine by trying to educate staff on misinformation and even offering incentives. One recent campaign offered the chance to win three generous prizes-- a trip to Walt Disney World, $5,000 cash, and a week’s paid vacation. All employees had to do to be eligible for the drawing was get fully vaccinated by July 31st. Despite those tempting offers, only 19 employees at 10 QLS facilities got vaccinated; and six of them were new hires.

QLS co-owner Mary Susan Tack-Yurek says she was very disappointed in the results of that campaign, especially with the Delta variant surging and cases on the rise.

“None of us want to go through that again, including our staff,” Tack-Yurek said. “The best defense that we have against that is for all of us to be vaccinated.”

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Nursing Homes Hesitant to Mandate Vaccine

Many nursing homes are hesitant to mandate vaccines due to already critical staffing shortages in the industry.

“I would be afraid of losing 66-percent of my staff,” said Kory Tack, the QLS Chicora administrator.

With losing employees such a real concern at all nursing homes, it is making the push to vaccinate much more complicated.

Many in the industry say the only thing that will make a real difference is a federal or statewide mandate for all health care workers to get the vaccine. Sources tell 11 Investigates that is something under consideration.