How do we get more health care workers vaccinated?

Photo of vaccination by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images.

If someone is working on a construction site, we expect her to wear a helmet. I would venture to say that most Ohioans would not find anything wrong with construction companies requiring their site workers to wear helmets.

I think you see where I’m going with this. Hospital employees are not required by the state of Ohio to get vaccines, though hospitals can require their employees to be vaccinated. Many Ohio hospitals, though, are not requiring employee vaccinations.

Where is the disconnect here? Some of this might have to do with the ongoing “will they or won’t they” relationship Americans have with vaccines. The “anti-vaxxer” movement has thrived in the age of social media, with a recent report suggesting 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and that anti-vaccine social media advertising is a $1 billion industry. This nervousness about vaccines has certainly impacted the comfort hospitals have with requiring vaccination, even if it will save lives.  

At the same time, hospitals are dealing with workforce fatigue. Even before the global pandemic kicked into gear, the global health care workforce was facing shortages. This can be even more acute in a state like Ohio where an older population means more demand for health care services and less supply of people to provide them.

COVID-19 has just made this problem worse. If you have friends or family in the health care industry, you’ve no doubt heard this word when you’ve asked them how they are doing: “exhausted.” Health care in Ohio throughout 2020 was a rollercoaster. Bans on elective surgeries in April forced hospitals to reduce their workforces. Then community spread throughout the summer caused mismatches in staffing as workers got sick. This all culminated in the hospitalization spike near the end of the year, which tested hospital capacity across the state.

The consideration that is likely holding back most hospitals from requiring vaccinations is a simple one: staffing. Yes, it might seem extreme to say someone would quit their job because of a safety precaution, but losing just a few staff at an already-taxed hospital can mean the difference between strain and disaster.

The state has some options for promoting vaccination among hospital staff. One is to continue to promote social distancing to keep hospitalization rates down. The governor’s continued curfews may be keeping community spread suppressed for the time being, which means less people sick and filling up hospitals and less strain on the health care workforce. Continued bans on large-group gathering and encouragement of telecommuting likely help with this, too.

On the other side, though, there are things we can do to make vaccination more attractive to health care workers. One approach is through public engagement. We’ve all seen the “Denial, Ohio” ads: The state is not afraid to spread messages about the importance of talking to your family about opioids. What about talking with your family about being vaccinated?

Brooking Institution Economist Robert Litan has gone as far as to say we should pay people to be vaccinated. Putting an extra $25, $50, or even $100+ in the pocket of a health care worker right away for getting vaccinated could be much cheaper than the Medicaid payouts for hospitalizations down the road.

If Ohio wants to beat the virus, we’re going to need to do better than 60% refusal rates for workers on the front line of the pandemic. Let’s hope that new federal leadership opens the door for new approaches that can stem the tide of this virus.

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