CANTON – It has been more than six months since frontline health care workers became eligible for the coronavirus vaccine in Ohio, but in Stark County many of those working on ambulance crews, in nursing homes and in hospitals remain unvaccinated.
In some cases, especially in nursing homes and on ambulance crews, rates of vaccination among health care workers is below the 46% vaccination rate for working-age people in Stark.
Vaccination rates for employees of Stark County’s two principal health care providers are 65% for Aultman and 75% for the Cleveland Clinic system-wide, according to spokespeople for the pair. Neither hospital system is providing individual location rates that would indicate whether Aultman Hospital, Aultman Alliance Hospital or the Cleveland Clinic Mercy Medical Center vary significantly from the system averages.
Experts are uncertain about what rate of vaccination is necessary to reach “herd immunity,” or the point at which enough people are inoculated to stop the spread of a virus in a community. Estimates, complicated by the arrival of new, more contagious variants, range between 80% and 90%. Some scientists believe herd immunity against the coronavirus will never be achieved.
Hesitancy where pandemic hit hardest
Whatever the optimal vaccination rate, a Repository analysis of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data suggests just over half of nursing home employees in Stark County were vaccinated as of June 27.
After Gov. Mike DeWine told the media that 60% of nursing home staff were refusing the vaccine in December, there was hope that some of that hesitancy would recede as many nursing employees were taking a wait-and-see approach to the then brand-new vaccines.
At least in Stark County, many still seem to be waiting.
Tara Smith, a Kent State University epidemiologist, said that many nursing home employees made it this far through the pandemic without falling ill and may believe that the virus only seriously impacts their elderly patients. Therefore, they do not think they need to vaccinate.
Even though employees at nursing homes witnessed some of the worst death rates from coronavirus and are skilled at patient care, like the general population, they may not be adept in the science of vaccines and vulnerable to the abundant misinformation about them, Smith added.
The two nursing homes in Stark County with the worst staff vaccination rates are both near Alliance. Roselawn Gardens Nursing and Rehabilitation reported that 18% of its staff members were fully vaccinated on June 27. Canterbury Villa of Alliance reported that 28% of its staff were fully vaccinated.
Ayden Healthcare of Canton, formerly known as Belden Village Healthcare, reported that 33% of its staff were vaccinated, the third lowest rate in the county.
An official at Roselawn Gardens, who declined to give her name as she was not authorized to speak to the media by the facility’s corporate owner, said that the vaccination rate has increased to about 22% in recent days.
“(Staff members) are very leery of a new vaccine, and I have a lot of females who are working here who are in their child-bearing years and with all of the concerns with infertility and stuff they are just not going to receive it,” she said.
Widely circulated social media claims that the coronavirus vaccines affect fertility in women are false, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. There is no evidence that pregnant or breastfeeding women or their babies suffer adverse impacts from taking the coronavirus vaccines.
The Roselawn Gardens official said that the facility has all pandemic masking and social distancing protocols still in place and that neither she nor facility residents are worried about the vaccination rate.
Sarah Rose, the chief clinical officer of Hillstone Healthcare, the Columbus-area company that owns Roselawn Gardens, confirmed that the facility is seeing resistance to the vaccine, but declined to comment further.
Canterbury Villa of Alliance and Ayden Healthcare did not return messages seeking comment by press time.
Smith, the Kent epidemiologist, said that low vaccination rates among health care staff are troubling as they are the most likely to be in contact with people who have coronavirus as well as those who are most vulnerable to it.
For the very elderly and those with compromised immune systems, even full vaccination does not offer complete protection from a serious bout of coronavirus, so having everyone around them, especially health care workers, vaccinated provides a sort of shield from transmission, Smith said.
Three nursing homes in the county have staff vaccination rates above 70% as of June 27. Bel Air Care Center in Alliance has the highest vaccination rate of any nursing home in the county at 84.1%. Altercare of Country Lawn in Navarre is second at 72.6% while Hanover House in Massillon has a rate of 71.4%.
Low rates for ambulances crews, high rates for firefighters
Ambulance operators are also struggling to persuade their staff to vaccinate.
Steve VanMeter, the chief of the Waynesburg-based Quad Ambulance District, said that between 30% and 40% of his employees are vaccinated.
VanMeter, who is fully vaccinated, said he is “absolutely worried” about the low rate among staff and is encouraging them to get their shots.
The chief said the low rate might be because Quad Ambulance did not do as many coronavirus-related transports as other more urban ambulances did, but he is not sure.
“I wish I had an answer,” he said.
Even in Canton, Richard Babb, who runs Ambulance Associates, said 55% of his employees are unvaccinated, even though he offers a $250 bonus to anyone who gets all their shots.
Babb wrote in an email that “it’s been nearly impossible for the management (my wife and I) to generate any really meaningful dialogue about the reasons for refusing the vaccine. We are told ‘personal’ reasons.”
Smith said that members of ambulance crews must be fit and healthy to do their jobs and may think that they are not vulnerable to the virus. That is not true, she said, and employees should also consider the health of the people they are transporting.
A bright spot in the data are the county’s three largest fire departments.
Matt Heck, Massillon’s fire chief, reported that between 58% and 60% of his employees are vaccinated. In Canton that number is between 60% and 70%, according to Battalion Chief Steve Henderson. The Alliance Fire Department has a vaccination rate of 73%, city health Commissioner Randall Flint said.
Convincing the unvaccinated
None of the health organizations contacted by the Repository have imposed a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, or currently intend to, but there are other strategies organizations can use to push up their vaccination rates.
Smith said that finding someone employees trust or look up to as a point person to answer questions is an important step, but every individual is different.
“There’s not a one size fits all,” she said.
St. Luke Lutheran Community of North Canton has been trying a strategy along those lines.
Kathleen Langer-Champlin, the executive director of the facility, said their efforts to encourage and educate their staff began at the first clinic in December.
Since then, unvaccinated staff have been required to be tested for the coronavirus twice a week. Each time, the unvaccinated staff are encouraged to sign up for a monthly on-site vaccination clinic.
The facility reported a staff vaccination rate of 56.6% as of June 27, but it changes with staff turnover, Langer-Champlin said. The rate was over 75% in the data reported a week earlier.
“We told them the risks and the benefits and what to expect,” she said. “I think it’s just being honest with them and open and telling them that this is important.”
Reach Alexander at 330-580-8342 or at [email protected]