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More than 45% of North Dakota nursing home workers haven't gotten a COVID-19 vaccine

The relative youth of nursing home workers means they're likely more reflective of North Dakota's general population than any other group that received priority during the state's vaccine rollout, state vaccination director Molly Howell said. The hesitancy of many workers to get their shots could foreshadow the difficulties in getting some younger North Dakotans on board with vaccines as they become more widely available, she said.

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Alena Goergen, right, became emotional as she received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Bismarck on Dec. 16. Goergen, the nursing director at Miller Pointe nursing home in Mandan, struggled with the virus earlier in the pandemic. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota nursing home employees were among the first to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in late December, but many have so far eschewed the recently released jab.

As of Friday, March 12, just 54.4% of the more than 12,000 long-term care workers in the state have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to North Dakota Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell.

Meanwhile, more than 90% of nursing home residents have received at least one shot — likely the catalyst for the sharp drop in COVID-19 infections within the state's facilities .

There are several reasons for the lack of widespread vaccine uptake among workers, Howell said.

Many holdouts are concerned with the safety of the vaccines or how quickly they were developed, Howell said. These fears are baseless, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , which notes that the approved vaccines met "rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality."

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Given their constant exposure to the vulnerable facilities, many employees have previously contracted and beaten COVID-19, leaving some to believe that they don't need the vaccine. Howell said those who survive the virus gain some degree of immunity to it, but scientists are unsure of how long the immunity lasts and some cases of reinfection have occurred.

Howell said she has heard from long-term care officials that workers are frustrated that they must continue wearing protective equipment and performing COVID-19 testing despite the low rate of infection within the facilities. Though several regulations have been loosened in recent weeks, some employees believe nothing would change in their workplace even if they were to get the vaccine.

The relative youth of nursing home workers means they're likely more reflective of North Dakota's general population than any other group that received priority during the state's vaccine rollout, Howell said.

The hesitancy of many workers to get their shots could foreshadow the difficulties in getting some younger North Dakotans on board with vaccines as they become more widely available, she said. Older residents, like those who live in nursing homes, are easier to convince because they're more susceptible to suffering a serious illness from COVID-19 and many of them remember firsthand the vaccine-induced eradication of other communicable diseases like polio.

Howell believes educating more workers about vaccines and dispelling misinformation will be the key to changing disbelieving minds. She said the state Department of Health and North Dakota State University have teamed up to distribute education materials and meet with those in the long-term care industry.

Some individual facilities have taken a different approach by offering incentives to workers who get the shot. One facility has promised three extra days of time off to vaccinated employees, while another is giving out $100 gift certificates, said Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long-Term Care Association.

But perhaps the best driver of increased vaccination among workers is time. In the last three weeks, about 6.5% of the nursing home workers in the state have sought out a vaccine.

Some of the initial skeptics are starting to come around because they're recognizing that the vaccine didn't have any adverse effects on their co-workers, Howell and Peterson agreed.

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"It's just going to take time, encouragement and reassurance that we're not seeing negative impacts from those who got the vaccine, and in fact, we're seeing some positive results," Peterson said.

North Dakota is a national leader in vaccine distribution, with nearly a quarter of residents having received at least one dose.

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