Survey finds vaccine hesitancy among rural healthcare workers

The Biden administration has turned to healthcare workers to take the lead in convincing reluctant Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but a recent survey of rural hospitals found reluctance among workers to get the shots and complicate that strategy.

The new survey, released Tuesday by the Chartis Center for Rural Health, found that rates among rural healthcare personnel were lower than influenza vaccination rates. Low vaccination rates in rural areas could prolong the impact of the pandemic, which has already had a major impact on rural hospitals that operate on thin margins, experts say.

“The results of this survey will dampen the expectation among policymakers and rural advocates that rural hospitals and frontline staff would be a sufficient, singular conduit to elevate vaccination rates within their communities,” a report on the survey said.

The center surveyed 160 rural hospital leaders between March 12 and April 15 of this year.

It found 82% indicated COVID-19 vaccination rates are below those of influenza vaccinations for healthcare personnel, which was 94% in 2020.

Nearly half of respondents also reported between 21% to 50% of their staff are opting out of getting a vaccine.

“When asked why healthcare personnel are declining a COVID vaccine, a majority of respondents—44%—cited ‘Matter of Personal Choice,’” the report said.

Another 31% reported a lack of trust in vaccines.

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The survey results come as the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to get more reluctant Americans to take the vaccine as supply starts to exceed demand for the shots.

But the results among rural hospitals, which got earlier access to the vaccine than the public, foretell that COVID-19 could continue to spread in rural areas.

If that happens, it would further stretch “hospital resources and further amplifying the risk that many of the most vulnerable populations face regarding population health disparities, racial inequality and access to care,” the report said.

There are some strategies that could help improve vaccine hesitancy among rural healthcare workers.

Chief among them is getting shots into the hands of physicians and have physicians lead efforts to convince reluctant workers or rural residents.

“We heard in those places where things worked well it was a physician-run and physician-led series of discussions on the daily,” said Michael Topchik, the lead author of the study, in an interview with Fierce Healthcare. “There were training programs and debunking myths.”

But there are some people who are entrenched in their positions no matter what anyone says.

One potential strategy is to create a mandate for healthcare workers to get vaccinated. Topchik said the idea of a mandate was floated in comments by respondents at least half a dozen times.

Some hospitals and health systems have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for workers.

“I do expect you will see more of that, and that will help,” Topchik said.