As the number of fully vaccinated residents increases in New Jersey, hope grows that we can move past the COVID-19 pandemic to a brighter, healthier future. The three vaccines available have been shown to be safe and effective through clinical trials.1 Additionally, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on the two messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines in real-world conditions found that those who were fully vaccinated were 90 percent less likely to get infected.2
Despite these promising studies, the New Jersey Department of Health understands that individuals still have questions about these vaccines. Healthcare workers are among those whose concerns have impacted vaccine uptake. A poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 1 in 3 healthcare workers were not confident that the vaccines were sufficiently tested for safety and effectiveness. Additionally, in the same poll, 3 in 10 healthcare workers said they were unsure about getting vaccinated or were not planning to do so.3
“3 in 10 healthcare workers said they were unsure about getting vaccinated or were not planning to do so.”
In New Jersey, we have seen similar reluctance to get vaccinated among some healthcare workers. Given that long-term care facilities were devasted by the pandemic, the Department has been monitoring the progress of vaccination rates at these facilities, which were provided the vaccination as part of the Federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care (LTC) Program.
An unpublished New Jersey Department of Health Survey of April 8, 2021, found that high levels of long-term residents are getting vaccinated, but unfortunately, staff vaccination hovers around 50 percent at these facilities.
Recognizing the high risk of infection faced by our frontline healthcare workers, New Jersey opened eligibility for this population in December, ahead of any other categories in the state’s phased rollout plan. The Department understands that healthcare workers share the same concerns as the general public about the vaccines, such as worries about side effects, the quick development timeline, lack of long-term studies and impact on fertility. However, it is concerning to see hesitancy in a population who bore the burden of responding to this illness and are still at high risk.
To help address vaccine hesitancy, the Department of Health launched a multi-phase, statewide public-awareness campaign to inform healthcare workers, other essential workers and the public about COVID-19 vaccine safety. The first phase of the campaign targeted the first vaccine-eligible population—paid and unpaid healthcare workers who work in settings that place them at high risk of acquiring COVID-19. As part of that initiative, the Department highlighted physicians, nurses and healthcare leaders emphasizing the importance of vaccination for healthcare workers.
The Department debuted a new video podcast series in February, addressing the importance of vaccination across communities. The first episode focused on long-term care workers. The podcast, entitled Saving Lives in New Jersey: The COVID-19 Vaccine and You, is hosted by Dr. Meg Fisher, a pediatric infectious disease consultant, Special Advisor to Health Commissioner Persichilli and member of the Board of the American Academy of Pediatrics. This first installment features a discussion with Lisa Williams, Executive Director of the Maplewood Senior Living at Princeton and Chair of the Assisted Living Council, Health Care Association of New Jersey. Williams explains the importance of the COVID-19 vaccination and hesitancy among workers in long-term care settings. She also addresses how administrators at long-term care facilities can help educate and motivate staff to get vaccinated. The series also includes discussions of vaccine development, safety and efficacy, as well as vaccine allocation and the importance of vaccinating seniors. As part of the broader campaign, the Department addresses these same topics in shorter videos with healthcare workers speaking to their colleagues as well as to the general public.
The Department also recognizes that there is a level of mistrust and resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine across communities of color due to long-standing inequities in the healthcare system. To combat this hesitancy, we have partnered with health leaders of color across the state to create video messages explaining why people should have confidence in the vaccine and sharing the importance of getting vaccinated.
Additionally, through the state’s ongoing public awareness campaign, four virtual townhall meetings have been held to address facts, fears and myths about the vaccine for the black and Caribbean communities, Latinx community (in English and separately in Spanish) and Asian American communities. Questions addressed in these meetings focused on issues such as vaccine safety, vaccine and fertility, vaccine interactions with other medications, vaccine side effects and the role of primary doctors in addressing mistrust.
As healthcare leaders, the Department is asking you to join us in the effort to increase vaccine uptake among your colleagues and the public. To build public confidence in the vaccine, we must respect the questions and concerns raised and respond to those questions and concerns with credible, science-based facts from trusted sources.
To assist healthcare leadership in communicating with staff who may be vaccine hesitant, the Department has developed an easy-to-use employee communication toolkit with information that will help healthcare employers and employees to continue to educate, inform and raise awareness about the COVID-19 vaccine. The toolkit includes links to information about the rigorous process for vaccine approval, to frequently asked questions about the vaccines, to video resources from healthcare professionals and to digital messaging, printable posters and draft email messaging for employees.
The Department also asks that you encourage your patients to get vaccinated and that you share important facts about the safety of the vaccine with them. As of April 19, all New Jersey residents 16 and older are eligible for vaccination. Those interested in getting vaccinated can register for the vaccine at https://covid19.nj.gov or call the state’s vaccination call center at 855-568-0545.