Amid a pandemic, a struggle to get Minnesota health care workers vaccinated

By Mike Kaszuba

The 59-year-old owner of an assisted living facility in Minnesota was asked, after having been exposed to COVID-19 in September 2021, why they had not been vaccinated. The answer: the vaccine is not safe.

A program director at a group home told state officials after being exposed in October 2021 that they had not taken the vaccine because “COVID-19 is not a threat.” A home health care personal assistant said they had not received the vaccine because they did not trust pharmaceutical companies. And a 25-year-old licensed practical nurse told state officials after being exposed to the virus they had not gotten the vaccine because they did not trust the government.

One health care worker, when asked why they had not been vaccinated, replied: “DOES NOT WANT TO BE A LAB RAT.”

Documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, show how state health officials encountered a persistent minority of health care workers in Minnesota who resisted getting a vaccine despite their exposure to COVID-19. The limited data was compiled by the Minnesota Department of Health, and was based on interviews with more than 170 health care workers beginning in August 2021 – more than eight months after vaccines were first available in the United States.

The state Department of Health, which released the data to PRM in March, said the interviews “only reflect a small proportion of [health care workers] who aren’t vaccinated” against COVID-19 in Minnesota, and represented just those who had a “recognized exposure” to the virus since last August and had agreed to be interviewed by state officials.

The data in Minnesota was compiled as President Biden and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pushed last year for a federal vaccine mandate for health care workers – an issue that further inflamed emotions across the country during the pandemic as opponents argued that the mandate unlawfully infringed on personal freedoms.

The federal vaccine mandate began in January of this year after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a closely-divided, 5-4 decision, upheld a Biden administration proposal to require health care workers at facilities receiving federal money to be vaccinated. The ruling came as the nation’s health care systems expressed concern that the mandate would lead to more shortages of workers.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in ruling in favor of the vaccine mandate for health care workers, said doing so fell within the federal government’s authority. “Vaccination requirements are a common feature of the provision of healthcare in America: Healthcare workers around the country are ordinarily required to be vaccinated for diseases such as hepatitis B, influenza, and measles, mumps, and rubella,” the court’s majority opinion stated.

Meanwhile, some of the state’s largest health organizations had joined the push for vaccines against COVID-19.

In January of this year, the Mayo Clinic announced that about 700 workers were losing their jobs because they had failed to comply with a vaccine mandate policy. In December, Allina Health announced that while 99.8 percent of its workers were either vaccinated or had received an exemption, 53 people had lost their jobs.

The controversy over a vaccine mandate came as the death toll from COVID-19 ­– nationwide, as well as in Minnesota – continued to rise.

As of May 6 of this year, more than 1.45 million Minnesotans have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 12,500 Minnesotans have died from the virus.

Nearly half of those deaths occurred in long-term care or assisted-living facilities. The state Department of Health reported that, as of early May, some 5,718 deaths had occurred among residents in such settings.

In the meantime, the CDC in early May reported that 3,088 health care workers across the U.S. had died of COVID-19.

As of May 1 of this year, the CDC also stated that 89.2 percent of the staff at more than 10,000 reporting nursing homes in the U.S. had been fully vaccinated. In Minnesota, as of May 1, the figure was 86.6 percent.

The data obtained by PRM reveals that a level of skepticism toward the vaccine lingered among some trained care givers in Minnesota – including registered nurses, medication aides and home health care workers – who worked at long-term care facilities, acute care hospitals and assisted living facilities.

The data is based on 172 interviews in which health care officials had been exposed to the virus and, starting in August 2021, agreed to answer questions on why they had not been vaccinated. While the data does list the date of exposure to the virus and the setting where the person was exposed to the virus, it does not disclose the identities of the health care workers, nor does it list which specific health care facilities they worked for.

She feels “better without getting vaccines”

According to the data, the skeptics included a 52-year-old direct support professional at a group home who told state officials that “her friend[‘s] father had severe reactions from the immunization and almost died, so she is afraid and doesn’t trust it.”

The 47-year-old director of an assisted living facility who was exposed to the virus by a co-worker told state officials she was also hesitant. The director said “she never gets sick so she feels like she is better without getting vaccines. She did say that if it is something that will be required for employment reasons, she is not opposed to getting it.”

Others listed different reasons for not getting the vaccine. A personal care assistant, who was exposed to the virus in October 2021, told state health officials that when they were young “a family member got sick from a vaccine and to this day she has a disability walking.”

A 48-year-old paramedic at an acute care hospital told state officials they simply “[don’t] trust the vaccine” after having been exposed to the virus in a “household/social” setting. The same reason was given by a 41-year-old operating room assistant after they were exposed to the virus by a co-worker in August 2021.

Another health care worker, a 41-year-old imaging operator, said they had not been vaccinated because of “religious reasons”, and because they did not trust the vaccine.

Similarly, a 51-year-old engineer at an acute care hospital, who was exposed to the virus in August 2021 through a co-worker, said “the vaccine isn’t safe.”

Medication assistant: “I just choose not to”

Many of those who were interviewed declined to say why they had not received the vaccine, with a 39-year-old dental assistant telling state officials it was a “personal choice” not to get vaccinated and simply “doesn’t want to.” A 30-year-old trained medication assistant said: “I just choose not to.”

A housekeeper at a long-term care facility said they had not been vaccinated because they “don’t like needles and [that the] the vaccine came up too soon – very scary.”

Likewise, a 57-year-old human services technician, after being exposed to COVID-19 in October 2021, stated that they were “concerned about long term side effects – studies [regarding the safety of the vaccine were] not long enough.”

A receptionist at a dental office had similar feelings, according to the data. “Unless it is life or death situation she chooses not to get an experimental vaccine,” she told state officials.

A 23-year-old direct support professional at a group home, who was exposed in September 2021, told state officials they were “sick with [Crohn‘s] Disease and had to get too many other vaccinations.”

According to the data, a few of the health care workers who were interviewed were uncooperative.

One worker at an acute care hospital, who was exposed to the virus in September 2021, refused to give their job title to state officials, but said they did not trust the vaccine.

And after attempting to interview a 30-year registered nurse at an acute care hospital, one official wrote: “Did not ask this person [why they were not vaccinated] because they were reluctant to speak with me and felt like they would refuse the rest of the interview if I asked.”