Why Are So Many Health-Care Workers Resisting the COVID Vaccine?
Tiffany Chance has worked as a certified nursing assistant since 2005. As an African-American woman in her mid-thirties, Chance typifies the demographics of her profession: most C.N.A.s are young, over a third are Black, ninety per cent are women. She was born and raised in Ohio, and for years worked at a single nursing facility. When the pandemic started and nursing homes faced dire personnel shortages, as many employees contracted the virus or quit in fear of it, Chance started picking up scattered shifts through IntelyCare, a staffing agency that allows health-care workers to choose jobs the way that Uber drivers accept riders. She often works six shifts a week, eight or twelve hours each, across several nursing homes.
When considering a shift, Chance, who has asthma, tries to choose nursing homes without active coronavirus spread. This information, however, is self-reported, and there’s often a delay. “I’d pick a place that said they don’t have the virus, then I’d show up and they’d say, ‘Actually, some of these people have covid,’ ” Chance told me. In early October, she scheduled a shift at a new facility, which, she was told, had no coronavirus-positive residents; she was given a surgical mask, not an N95 respirator.
A week later, as she started to develop a runny nose, she received a call: a resident had tested positive. Soon, her breathing worsened. “God, it was terrible,” she said. “It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I couldn’t walk an inch without getting out of breath.” Chance couldn’t work for weeks; during that time, she received no sick pay. She tried to sign up for food stamps and unemployment benefits, but “I had to jump through so many hoops. They wanted my medical records, my test result, my pay stub, my last employer. I’m thinking, What does my last employer have to do with this? I need help right now!” She tried to e-mail the paperwork, but was told it would take longer to process than if she dropped it off. “I’m, like, I can’t drop it off, I have covid.” As the weeks wore on, she turned to family for help with food and money for rent. “I kept thinking, You work this hard, you care for so many people. And when you get sick, this is how you’re treated.”
While navigating these bureaucratic hurdles, Chance’s symptoms worsened; during one especially rough night, she considered going to the hospital. But the following morning her breathing eased, and slowly it returned to normal. Chance is convinced that her illness didn’t get worse only because, a few years ago, she’d received the pneumonia vaccine. “I really think it helped,” she said. “That vaccine saved me.”
Chance doesn’t want a coronavirus vaccine. (Because it’s not known how long naturally acquired immunity lasts, the C.D.C. recommends that people who have already had the virus still get vaccinated.) I asked her how she has come to believe that one vaccine saved her life but another threatens her health. The vaccine “came out too fast,” she said. “I think they removed a lot of barriers to get it done faster.” She continued, “It’s not that I don’t believe they’re trying to do a good job. I think they have awesome scientists working really hard. I applaud them for doing what they’re doing. I just don’t believe there’s been enough research yet. There’s no way they’ve been studying it for long enough.” Beyond the speed of development, Chance has questions—about how long vaccine-generated immunity lasts, about how serious the long-term side effects might be, and about what could happen if the virus mutates further. Until these questions are answered to her satisfaction, she has no plans to get immunized. “I’m not saying never,” Chance told me. “I’m just saying not now.”
Like Chance, Kia Cooper has been a certified nursing assistant for nearly two decades. She works in and around Philadelphia; early in the pandemic, she would split her time between traditional nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. She prefers the latter. “Nursing homes give you too many patients, and they are much more dependent on you for everything—dressing, bathing, feeding, transport,” she said. “It’s backbreaking work.” In Cooper’s experience, it’s not unusual for a single C.N.A. to care for twenty nursing-home residents at a time. One evening in the spring, she arrived for an overnight shift to find that the other C.N.A.s scheduled to work hadn’t shown up. “It was me and two nurses for fifty residents,” she said. “The charge nurse kept calling people to try to get them to come in but no one responded.”
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