NC hospitals find COVID-19 vaccine to be a tough sell among their own employees

A survey of North Carolina’s 14 largest hospitals finds that many have not managed to vaccinate a third or more of their employees against COVID-19, despite having early and easy access to vaccines.

Seven of the 14 hospitals surveyed reported vaccination rates ranging from 50% to 65%. Five refused to disclose their vaccination rates.  

By comparison, almost 70% of the American public either has been vaccinated, or plans to be, according to a February survey by the Pew Research Center.

Dennis Taylor of the North Carolina Nurses Association and Cynthia Charles of the North Carolina Healthcare Association
Dennis Taylor of the North Carolina Nurses Association and Cynthia Charles of the North Carolina Healthcare Association

“I’m not sure how you can express enough frustration at folks who don’t think it’s important or don’t want to get the vaccine,” said Dennis Taylor, president of the North Carolina Nurses Association. The association has roughly 7,700 members. 

“I think it’s important especially (that) those of us that work in provider offices, that work in the hospital, that work in areas where we come into contact with vulnerable populations, that we take it as part of our professional responsibility to be vaccinated against the virus.” 

Cynthia Charles, vice president of the North Carolina Healthcare Association, also expressed concern. The association represents NC hospital systems.

Charles and Taylor said they believed many employees who declined to be vaccinated first wanted to see how the vaccine affected others. 

“We are not surprised but are still concerned that more healthcare workers are not yet vaccinated,” Charles said. “We hope that vaccine confidence will increase among healthcare workers and others during the spring as they see people they know getting vaccinated and having only mild side effects.”

Nationally, women and African Americans have been among the most hesitant to get vaccinated, Charles said. 

“Many health care workers in North Carolina are in those demographic groups, so seeing some hesitancy is not surprising,” she said. 

The 14 hospitals were contacted by students in an advanced reporting class at Queens University of Charlotte. Each hospital was selected on the basis of having 300 or more beds. The students initially asked for vaccination rates through emails and by phone. When hospitals did not respond, or refused to explain their rates, the students filed for the information under state or federal public records laws.

Cone Health in Greensboro and CarolinaEast Health in New Bern reported the highest vaccination rates, each at 65%. Following closely behind was Novant Health, headquartered in Winston-Salem, at 63%. Other hospitals that reported vaccination rates were Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville (60%), CaroMont Health in Gastonia (55%), FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst (50%), and Nash General Hospital in Rocky Mount (50%).

Two of the six hospitals that have not disclosed vaccination rates continue to review the public records requests. One of them is the state’s largest hospital system, Atrium Health, headquartered in Charlotte. 

Five hospitals either did not respond or declined, asserting that they are not subject to North Carolina’s Public Records Act. They are UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, Duke Regional Hospital in Durham, Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston Salem, Vidant Health in Greenville and Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory.

No hospital that responded requires vaccinations, and all indicated that unvaccinated employees have been allowed to continue working in their same jobs.   Those hospitals also said they were taking safety precautions, including requiredsocial distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves and masks.

“From a patient perspective, they are still going to do the same things that (they) would if they were vaccinated or not,” said Thomas Nagle, founder of Carolina Patient Advocates, which serves patients in the Piedmont and NC mountains. 

At best, several hospitals said, their vaccination rates are estimates since their employees are also free to be vaccinated elsewhere in the community. At least one hospital, Cone Health, said it only had a record of first doses. 

Nationally, other studies also have shown vaccine hesitancy among hospital employees, and healthcare workers in general. 

A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of more than 1,300 healthcare workers in March found that 52% of front-line healthcare workers had received at least one dose of a vaccine. The study also revealed that “30% of U.S healthcare workers do not plan on getting vaccinated or are still unsure about receiving a vaccine.”

Additionally, the study found that one in six healthcare workers said that they would quit their job if vaccinations were a requirement.

“Vaccination rates are particularly low among health-care workers who are Black, those in lower-paying jobs such as home health aides and those with less education,” the Post-Kaiser survey said.

Megan Rivers, a Novant communications executive, said: “Similar to trends across the country, we are seeing lower vaccine acceptance rates among our Black and Brown team members, as well as those who identify as Gen Z or Millennials.”

Several of the NC hospitals said they were using a variety of techniques to actively encourage their employees to get vaccinated.  

Dorsey Tobias, a communications executive at Nash General Hospital, said in an email that institution is promoting vaccination through a “continuous and multi-faceted communications strategy including emails, fliers, information packets, videos, photos, staff meetings, and 1-(on)-1 conversation.”

Similarly, Rivers said Novant’s efforts include inviting staff to ask questions during bi-weekly calls with infectious disease experts, as well as sharing testimonials from those across the health system who have received the vaccine. They are also hosting pop-up events at locations across the Novant system. 

The following hospitals declined to provide vaccination rates: 

  • Vidant Health, a hospital headquartered in Greenville, has more than 12,000 employees and serves more than 1.4 million people in eastern NC with 1,447 beds. Brian Wudkwych, external communications spokesman for the hospital, said Vidant fell outside of NC Public Records law because it is a “private not-for-profit.”
  • Frye Regional Medical Center, a privately operated hospital in Hickory, said it was not required to provide the data. Frye has 1,482 employees and 355 hospital beds. 
  • Duke University Health System in Durham has more than 15,000 employees and a total of more than 1,500 beds. The hospital declined to provide data, saying it is a private entity and exempt from public records laws. 
  • Wake Forest Baptist Health has 14,000 employees. Its headquarters is in Winston-Salem and it has 877 beds. A spokesman said it is a private entity and not required to release data. 

       The following hospital failed to respond to the public records request: 

  • UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill has more than 7,100 employees and more than 900 beds. The following hospitals continue to review public records requests: 

     These hospitals have public records requests pending:

  • Womack Army Medical Center provides health care to around 200,000 veterans and active-duty military, and their families in the Fort Bragg area. The hospital is continuing to review the public records request. 
  • Atrium Health, the largest health care system in North and South Carolina, is home to more than 42,000 employees and over 5,200 licensed beds. Atrium is a not-for-profit health system. A spokesman said Atrium’s legal team continues to review the request. NC

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Published by students of Queens University of Charlotte, 1900 Selwyn Avenue, Charlotte, N.C. 28274.