Vaccine hesitancy on the front lines: a health-care worker shares her questions, we find answers
MONTREAL -- Sometimes during the first wave, Tania Muhanna, a patient attendant at a Montreal long-term care home, said she would lie down at the edge of a bed next to a resident who was sick and alone.
The 44-year-old health-care worker said she got some “bizarre” looks from co-workers, “but I also got looks of appreciation and love and I wouldn’t change a thing. These people - they had nobody.”
It was early in the pandemic, a time when it wasn’t easy to arrange communication between the residents and their family members on the outside.
“It was absolutely terrifying. We have to go in with our game faces on, put on a brave face. The last thing you want to do is scare our patients, our residents,” Muhanna said.
The front-line worker was also concerned about catching COVID-19 herself.
“Like everyone else, we weren’t prepared, obviously. We weren’t expecting any of this,” Muhanna said, explaining they were working 16-hour days last spring and didn’t have enough PPE. Fortunately, she remained healthy.
Today at her CHSLD - which Muhanna has asked CTV not to name because she said she’s speaking only for herself - the situation is under control.
“Where I work, honestly, now -- we’re doing a fantastic job,” and Muhanna said they have the personal protective equipment they need.
But she said the emotional scars from the first months when the disease was ever-present and people around her were dying, are “still with me.”
So, is she now looking forward to getting a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available at the CHSLD where she still works?
Despite the stress and fear she’s lived through, Muhanna said she knows it might sound strange that she’s hesitant about being vaccinated.
“I’m definitely not an anti-vaxxer. I get the flu shot every year, so I have nothing against vaccines," Muhanna told CTV in an interview.
What she needs to make a clear-headed decision, she said, are “good, trusted” answers to the many questions she and her co-workers have, since “it’s all happened so fast.”
She said many of her fellow workers are “flat-out refusing” to be inoculated.
Misinformation, memes and decontextualized videos circulating online are not helpful.
Muhanna said most of the social media posts others have sent to her about vaccines “have been negative.”
“I feel like we’re left a little in the dark here. We’re -- let’s face it -- risking our own lives to take care of others, and people just need to understand where some of the hesitancy is coming from.”
But the frontline worker said she is open-minded and is “totally grateful” she will eventually be offered the two doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine that she would need, for the vaccine to be effective.
“If by the time it rolls around to my turn, if I feel like I have enough information and I’m comfortable, I’ll absolutely go ahead with it. If not then I’d opt to wait for a later one,” Muhanna has so far concluded.
VACCINE Q & A
We recorded some of Muhanna’s questions about the Health Canada-approved vaccine, and later the same day, put the questions to scientist Jonathan Jarry from McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.
As a science communicator, Jarry said a certain amount of vaccine hesitancy is understandable and to be expected because “it’s a new disease and a new vaccine.”
“It is important to ask good questions in good faith, and be receptive to what the answers are,” said Jarry.
Tania Muhanna said she’s happy to “bring this issue to light,” and to learn more about the vaccine.
TM - Is the Pfizer vaccine safe?
JJ - The vaccine was tested in animals, it was then tested in a small group of people to specifically look at safety. And then they recruited 44,000 human beings to either receive the vaccine or to receive a placebo which is a shot of saline, and these participants did not know what they were receiving, which is good practice in a clinical trial. What scientists found and the reason why the vaccine was authorized by both American and Canadian regulatory agencies is that the vaccine was indeed safe. Serious side effects of vaccines usually appear very quickly after the shot and these people were followed for two months and they continue to be followed to this day. So this is a vaccine that having looked at the data myself, I would feel safe taking.
TM - I heard that the side effects of the vaccine could be worse than getting COVID. Is that true?
JJ - It’s important to point out that in Pfizer’s clinical trial of the vaccine, mild and temporary side effects were very common - more so than with a flu shot, but less so than with the recent shingles vaccine. So we should expect things like a sore arm, temporary fatigue and a headache. It’s not fun and it may impede some people’s ability to work the next day, which is something to keep in mind.
COVID-19, on the other hand, is much worse. If you get mild disease, you might feel like you’ve got a really bad flu for two weeks. Fourteen per cent of people, roughly, get severe disease, which includes difficulty breathing, five per cent go on to be critical. Also many report symptoms such as significant fatigue and shortness of breath months after “recovering” from the original illness and there’s a lot that we don’t know about the consequences of this illness so for me the choice is clear. I’ll take the vaccine over the virus.
TM - I wear PPE while I work and I haven’t caught COVID, so why do I need to get the vaccine?
JJ - Personal protective equipment like masks and visors - they are not perfect. It’s a little bit like using an umbrella during a heavy rainfall. It does a great job of keeping you dry but if a car drives through a puddle your legs are getting splashed. Also, we saw PPE shortages during the pandemic. By taking the vaccine which, again, is remarkably efficacious you are essentially internalizing that protection.
TM - Where would I go to find good, solid, trusted information regarding this vaccine?
JJ - This is an excellent question - it’s very relevant. There are some ground rules when we see vaccine claims online. If what you see makes you really scared, ask yourself, am I being emotionally manipulated? Because keep in mind no vaccine has received the continuous public scrutiny that these COVID vaccines have. If every blood draw was being filmed and talked about on social media, we would hear about veins collapsing and people fainting all the time and we would imagine that drawing blood from someone was incredibly dangerous.
As for reliable information, we certainly try and look objectively at the data at the McGill Office for Science and Society. (Scientist) Hilda Bastian has done a fantastic job of following COVID vaccine development on her blog. There are great science journalists out there who have covered this issue really well.
Be very, very skeptical of short video clips that circulate online that may be decontextualized, skeptical of carefully curated numbers that scare you, of whispers and rumours. And when stories break, there’s a lot of confusion and sometimes it’s best to wait a day or two to see what infectious disease specialists and virus experts have to say.