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Upper Valley health care providers combat vaccination hesitancy

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2021 11:05:16 AM
Modified: 3/27/2021 11:05:14 AM

WEST LEBANON — As the Twin States expand eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines, questions remain about how many people will step up to get the shots that health officials say are necessary for life to return to pre-pandemic normal.

In an effort to boost those rates, Upper Valley health care providers are combating disinformation by answering individual concerns, scheduling information sessions and balancing encouragement with gentle hands-off gestures, such as keeping the vaccine voluntary and one facility that’s declining to track employee vaccination rates.

In the first three days of eligibility, 88,000 people between the ages of 50 and 64, known as Phase 2b, had signed up for vaccine appointments in New Hampshire, representing 44% of the estimated 200,000 people in that category. Everyone 16 and older in New Hampshire will be eligible for vaccination by next Friday and in Vermont, by April 19.

“It’s not too late to say yes to vaccination,” said Beth Daly, chief of New Hampshire’s Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, during a Thursday news conference. “We hope that you will make this choice.”

It’s not yet clear exactly what percentage of the population will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, which prevents the spread of disease from person to person and includes protection from illness even for those who can’t be vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said it may be as high as 90%.

The path to a return to normal may not require a vaccination rate quite that high, but public health officials say they aim to vaccinate everyone they can, especially since no vaccines are currently approved for use in children under 16.

The Twin States still have a long way to go. In Vermont, about 189,500 people, or nearly 35% of the population 16 and over, had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Friday. In New Hampshire, 354,800 people, or 26% of the 16 and up population, had gotten at least a first dose as of Thursday.

Twin State health care workers — who were offered COVID-19 vaccines beginning in December at clinics in hospitals and long-term care facilities, meaning they have been eligible for COVID-19 longer than other groups — have accepted shots at relatively high rates, perhaps providing a path forward for other residents.

Statewide in New Hampshire, hospitals estimate 70-85% of workers have chosen to be vaccinated, said Jake Leon, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

A January study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that as of Jan. 17, New Hampshire was the state with the highest rate of vaccine uptake among employees at long-term care facilities at somewhere between 60 and 79%. Vaccination rates have increased since then.

“We know that some health care workers initially declined but many have reconsidered their initial decision and gotten vaccinated at a later opportunity,” Leon said.

As of Friday, 74% of employees at Vermont’s long term care facilities had gotten at least one dose, said Ben Truman, a spokesman for the Vermont Department of Health.

Upper Valley providers seem eager to step up. So far, 80% of workers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock have opted to get vaccinated, as have 85% of workers at the White River Junction VA Medical Center and 80% at the White River Junction-based Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire, a member of the D-H health system.

None of these organizations have made vaccination mandatory. Instead, both D-H and the VA are offering information to workers and patients with questions and concerns about the new vaccines.

“Pregnancy-related concerns are a common reason for declining, and we’ve tried to address the most commonly asked questions on our public website,” said Dr. Michael Calderwood, chief quality officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in an email.

“We know the hesitancy gap is shrinking nationally as more people are vaccinated, but we continue to focus our efforts to address concerns and combat misinformation to encourage not only our staff, but the community to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.”

D-H, on its website, encourages women who are pregnant or planning to become so to consult a health care provider about the benefits and risks of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as their own personal risk of becoming infected with the virus. Pregnant women are at an elevated risk of developing severe illness should they become infected, but the vaccine trials did not evaluate their safety in pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Though lactating women were excluded from the trials, D-H’s website says that benefits of vaccination for women in this category outweigh the “very small safety concerns” based on experience with other vaccines.

The website notes that women who choose not to be vaccinated during their pregnancies can choose to get shots after their babies are born.

Meanwhile, at the VA, leaders have offered “open educational sessions for our employees who wish to learn more about the available vaccines to support them in making an informed decision,” said spokeswoman Katherine Tang. Veterans with questions are encouraged to talk to their health care provider, Tang said.

Similarly, the New London-based Lake Sunapee Region VNA & Hospice has focused on providing employees with information and encouragement, going so far as not to keep statistics on employee vaccination rates.

“As is the case with the general public, some health care workers want to wait because this is all new,” Jim Culhane, the organization’s CEO, said in an emailed statement.

Those opposed to vaccination appear to be in the minority. In an early February interview, Dr. Fay Homan, a family medicine physician who works at the Little Rivers Health Care’s Wells River clinic, said she does get some questions from patients about the speed at which the vaccines were developed and about side effects, but most people wanted to know “how soon they can get it.”

When people have concerns about the speed of the vaccines’ development, Homan explains that they were developed quickly because of “unprecedented cooperation” among pharmaceutical companies and governments. She also explains that the vaccines have been studied and evaluated for safety in the same way other vaccines have.

“I think if you just keep reminding people that this is how you begin getting back to normal (and that) this vaccine has the potential to eradicate COVID completely from our population,” Homan said, “I do think people will get there eventually.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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