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Hospital’s friendly huddles persuade more staff to get COVID-19 vaccinations

Dr. Adina Weinerman is on a mission to get her fellow health-care workers at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre Hospital vaccinated against COVID-19.

Although 75 per cent of eligible Canadians are now fully vaccinated, others are still reluctant to get the jab, including health-care workers. Regulations over workplace vaccine mandates vary across the country, and at a time when health-care providers are already stretched thin, losing staff who aren’t vaccinated puts more pressure on those who remain and may affect patient care.

So Weinerman, who is an internist and the medical director for quality and patient safety at Sunnybrook, worked to reassure workers about the vaccine’s safety. Sunnybrook doesn’t have a strict vaccine mandate, but staff who haven’t provided proof of COVID-19 vaccination must undergo regular testing.

The idea is that while vaccine mandates by themselves can generate angry compliance, some friendly persuasion can change minds.

“We took as many different approaches as we could to get as many staff trusted, trustworthy information that they could rely on and sort of dispel those myths,” said Weinerman.

That included initial huddles, usually over Zoom, where Weinerman and others took questions and offered information. Other huddles were in person, on the wards or in the hospital kitchen or janitorial room.  Following the session, people could use a confidential email to ask specific questions they may not have wanted to ask in person.

Dr. Adina Weinerman is an internist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. Her team trained more than 100 vaccine champions to help answer questions. (Submitted by Adina Weinerman)

Weinerman’s team trained over 100 people as vaccine champions who are available for anything from one-on-one talks to large team meetings, to address concerns over vaccines. The champions work in different jobs, have different life experiences and backgrounds.

Weinerman said that being open and approachable was another key in reaching staff. She often began her sessions by talking about myths and falsehoods going around about the vaccine.

“I think by opening the conversation with some of the biggest questions we’ve heard or even some of the things that felt the most outlandish, opened it up so that everyone knew there was no question whatsoever that was off limits,” she said.

The program is ongoing although it has slowed down now as more people have gotten vaccinated.

As of this week, Sunnybrook reports that over 95 per cent of staff have gotten the COVID vaccine. Weinerman says close to 1,000 Sunnybrook staff have taken part in the program, and while it’s difficult to track the precise results, she thinks they have had an impact.

“Anecdotally, I think we helped convince a lot of people to maybe get it earlier,” she said.

Trust is key

Dr. Ayisha Kurji said she was very impressed when she heard about the work Sunnybrook staff were doing to get people vaccinated.

“I haven’t seen a lot of this kind of level of dedication to it, which I think is phenomenal and I wish everybody could have that level,” she said. Kurji is a pediatrician in Saskatoon, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Saskatchewan.

Kurji said that trying different ways to connect with people, such as talking in person and then offering a confidential email, is important to helping people make informed decisions.

“I think that’s amazing because it gives people all of the opportunities in a variety of different media and a variety of different settings so that whatever works for you, we are here to have that answer,” she said.

For Kurji, the fact that Weinerman and her team obviously devoted a lot of time and effort to outreach is key to building trust.

“Finding someone that you trust, that you can ask your questions of and know that you’re going to get accurate information that’s not trying to push you one way or the other is definitely going to help people feel more safe,” she said.

Dr. Ayisha Kurji, a Saskatoon pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, says she was impressed by the efforts at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto to address vaccine hesitancy among staff. (Submitted by Ayisha Kurji)

From doubtful to decisive

The struggle to find good information about vaccines, along with disinformation, are just some of the factors that lead to hesitancy.

People from racialized communities who have had previous negative experiences with governments may be skeptical about vaccine campaigns, Weinerman said.

Nurse Diana Beckford, the team leader of the D2 inpatient unit at the hospital, which cares for nephrology patients among others, said she had a lot of fear and mistrust over the vaccine.

“It’s always been the theory and the thinking that, you know, minorities and certain group[s] of people were used as guinea pigs for testing of vaccines and all kinds of other stuff,” she said.

Weinerman and Beckford at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre)

A survey from Innovative Research Group on behalf of the Black Opportunity Fund and the African Canadian Civic Engagement Council on vaccine hesitancy in early June suggests Black Canadians were more likely to be hesitant about COVID vaccines, compared to white or non-Black people of colour.

Beckford also felt that the COVID-19 vaccine development and approval happened very quickly.

“Wow, how could they have done this so fast?” she remembered wondering. “Will it help us? Will it be effective? Was it any good just because of the … speed in which it was made ready for people to use?”

Although the vaccine against COVID-19 did come together quickly, that speed was only possible because of work that scientists have been doing for years. Ozlem Tureci, who founded the German company BioNTech with her husband, had been working on mRNA technology for two decades when they pivoted to applying it to a COVID vaccine.

Beckford said her co-workers shared similar fears over the speed of the vaccine’s development and were hesitant to get vaccinated, she said.

But Weinerman and her online sessions changed that, sessions that Beckford called “profound.”

“I totally went in there thinking, I am not doing this, and I walked away saying, ‘I’m going to book my vaccine because all the information that I needed to feel confident and have the knowledge to make an informed decision, was given to me at the Zoom meeting,'” said Beckford.

A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a member of the medical staff at a COVID-19 vaccination center in La Baule, France. A patchwork of regulations across Canada over vaccine mandates has hospitals coming up with their own programs and mandates for staff. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

Weinerman held three sessions with Beckford’s team and says the nurse’s leadership, including being present for all three sessions, and being front and centre in the video chat, helped others feel more comfortable.

“I think Diana being there sort of also showed her colleagues that this is important to all of them, that they had to listen, that they could feel safe,” said Weinerman.

She said she didn’t know if the huddles were going to work, until she started getting feedback.

“It’s only after people like Diana would come up to me and say, ‘I got vaccinated because of you or because of the information we got from you,’ that made it feel like, OK, the hours and the time and the commitment to do this well and to do this properly is worth it,” said Weinerman.

“By the end of it, literally my floor was 100 per cent vaccinated,” said Beckford.

Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from Colleen Ross. Produced by Amina Zafar and Brian Goldman.

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