LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – As the Delta variant spreads, hospital beds across Arkansas are filling with COVID-19 patients, but some doctors and nurses working to save lives haven’t been vaccinated.
Currently, no hospitals in central Arkansas have staff-wide vaccination requirements, though some are making vaccinations mandatory for certain employees.
At Baptist Hospital, Intensive Care Unit nurse Jami Bakhtiar cares for COVID-19 patients every day. He says the majority aren’t vaccinated.
“It’s no joke. They’re sicker, they’re younger, ” he said. “This guy was so young, didn’t have the cough, he just died all of a sudden.”
Bakhtiar got his vaccine in January 2021, a couple weeks after it was first available.
Some of his co-workers decided to wait but are now changing their minds.
“When it first came out, I was pregnant,” explained Baptist Health ICU nurse Sarah Haney. “I didn’t want to get it because I’d already had a miscarriage that year.”
Haney got her first dose in July, explaining her concern shifted as the recent surge put more pregnant women in the ICU.
“They just get this variant, and it just takes them down,” Haney said. “They’re on the vent, it’s just awful.”
Haney isn’t the only pregnant nurse, who’s now getting a vaccine.
Postpartum Unit nurse Ayrien Lovell says she decided to get the vaccine after one of her co-workers who’s pregnant and unvaccinated, ended up in the hospital with COVID-19.
“She spent 15 days in the ICU,” Lovell said. “She was 2 liters away from being intubated, and just I didn’t want to be in that spot.”
VACCINE HESITANCY HITS SOME HOSPITALS HARDER
In Arkansas, there’s also no requirement for hospitals to publicize employee vaccination rates.
The Department of Health and Arkansas Hospital Association aren’t tracking those numbers.
Working 4 You surveyed the 13 biggest hospitals in central Arkansas asking each how many employees got the vaccine.
Seven hospitals agreed to share vaccination rates for all staff. The following numbers were reported by each hospital:
- UAMS: 87 percent of staff fully vaccinated.
- CHI St. Vincent: around 90 percent of staff fully vaccinated.
- Veteran’s Hospital: 84 percent of staff fully vaccinated.
- Children’s Hospital: 76 percent of staff fully vaccinated.
- White River Medical Center: around 54 percent of staff fully vaccinated.
- Baptist Health: 78 percent of staff fully vaccinated.
- Unity Health: around 50 percent of staff fully vaccinated. Unity noted that 96 percent of physicians are fully vaccinated.
DOCTORS LEADING BY EXAMPLE
At Unity Health, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Roddy Lochala is urging his staff and colleagues to get vaccinated.
“We would like nothing more than to give one of our teammates a vaccination,” Lochala said.
Lochala got his first dose last December. In a push to get more people vaccinated, he’s speaking in videos sent around the hospital and online, talking about vaccine safety.
“The vaccine is incredibly helpful against severe outcomes,” he said.
Lochala acknowledges overall employee vaccination rates are lower than he’d like, but doctors have a much higher rate at 96 percent.
“That speaks volumes for the community,” Lochala said. “I would love to see the community follow suit that these physicians, who spend their lives evaluating data, took the vaccine themselves. They made that personal decision not to wait.”
When asked if Unity Health is considering mandatory vaccinations, Lochala called it an ongoing conversation.
“We have not, and there’s some reasons and good thoughts for and against that. I wouldn’t want to talk about any of that on the air, but we’ve talked about it,” he said. “I think once the FDA gives full approval that’s a critical last step, you’ll see more people get vaccinated.”
At UAMS, the hospital reports 87 percent of staff are fully vaccinated.
“I’d love to see it at 100 percent but we haven’t hit that yet,” said Dr. Robert Hopkins, UAMS Chief of Internal Medicine. “I was excited to be vaccinated.”
Hopkins is fully vaccinated and speaks in informational videos about the vaccine that now play on TVs throughout the hospital.
“The uptake has really been pretty good,” he added.
Hopkins believes more employees are viewing vaccination as a professional responsibility. He explains many employees are using name tags or stickers showing they’re vaccinated, which he says might be helping drive the hospital’s higher vaccination rate.
“If I’m here to provide healthcare to you, and I’m unvaccinated, then potentially I place myself and my family at risk, but I also potentially place you at risk,” Hopkins added.
PUSH FOR MANDATORY VACCINATIONS
It’s no secret vaccine hesitancy is a dangerous problem across Arkansas, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks the state one of the worst for vaccination rates.
In July, the Arkansas Hospital Association sent a letter saying it, “strongly supports hospital policies that require all hospital employees and clinical team members to be vaccinated.”
Children’s Hospital in Little Rock has already taken one step, requiring vaccines for new employees and hospital leaders including managers, directors, vice presidents, senior vice presidents and executive vice president.
At the VA employees working with patients have two months to get the shot as part of a federal mandate.
Meanwhile, some nurses like Bakhtiar welcome stricter policies.
“I felt like as a nurse it’s my duty to get the vaccine,” he said. “Our responsibility is to play it as safe as possible. Even if that means being too safe and too strict, we have to do that for the safety of the public and our patients.”
Others on the frontline agree the new surge in cases proved there’s too much at stake to wait.
“You would rather have a little bit of side effects from a vaccine than ending up in here and possibly dying or losing your loved one,” Haney said.