'Like hand-to-hand combat': Florida health system battles vaccine hesitancy 1 employee at a time

Sarasota (Fla.) Memorial Health Care System has had to go beyond typical efforts to get its staff and community vaccinated with various demographics in the community being vaccine-hesitant.

The West Florida health system's CEO, David Verinder, told Becker's that hospital leaders anticipated a slowdown in demand because of vaccine hesitancy, and the health system is "definitely in that mode right now."

While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause certainly did not help, Mr. Verinder said the hospital was already having to develop a strategy to combat hesitancy since a portion of the demographics the health system serves "don't believe in vaccines."

Internally, about 70 percent of the staff is vaccinated. Before undergoing strategies to reduce hesitancy, 60 percent of the hospital staff had vaccines, Mr. Verinder said.

The first step was to increase education on vaccines.

"We put out everything from YouTube videos, to internal communications from a lot of our scientists and experts to share a lot of research," he said. "[The physicians] spend a lot of time with staff that have questions."

Mr. Verinder said vaccine hesitancy can be found across different positions in the hospital.

In one example, he said he spoke with a nurse who said she wanted to start a family shortly but had heard the vaccine was tied to infertility. In this scenario, Mr. Verinder asked her if she could speak with James Fiorica, MD, the health system's CMO and a gynecologist.

"It's almost like you're in hand-to-hand combat, trying to do them one at a time," he said.

The health system is currently sitting at 70 percent who have got the vaccine, but the goal is for 80 percent of the staff to get the vaccine. 

Some healthcare facilities have implemented vaccine mandates, which require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine or need a waiver not to, as a condition of the job. Ultimately, the health system decided it was not the right move.

"You have real staffing issues right now in hospitals at every level. So everything from the entry-level food service workers to our environmental services to nursing ranks," he said. "So if I were to mandate it, even if I got the number up, I'd lose 10 to 15 percent of my staff; that would be detrimental to being able to carry out our vision."

Outside of internal vaccine campaigns, the health system is working with the community to increase the number of residents who have been vaccinated.

"We're doing a lot of education and the community, we have our physicians, talking at anything that we can get a microphone in front of — we're on the local news every night," he said.

Having medical experts speak in the news is not new for the health system. What is new, he said, is paying for advertisements to promote public health. The health system is paying for community leaders of a variety of demographics to speak in public service announcements to reach a larger audience.

The different strategies the health system has launched take a lot of effort, but it does pay off, Mr. Verinder said.



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