Why hospitals are vaccinating employees who don't care for patients

  • Edward Hospital respiratory therapist Andy Dhanoa received one of the Naperville hospital's first COVID-19 vaccinations when they were first made available last month.

    Edward Hospital respiratory therapist Andy Dhanoa received one of the Naperville hospital's first COVID-19 vaccinations when they were first made available last month. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/13/2021 8:55 AM

As soon as COVID-19 vaccines began arriving at hospitals throughout Illinois in mid-December, doses were put into the arms of health care workers who were at the greatest risk of being exposed to the deadly virus.

But vaccinations also were given to hospital employees who worked in administrative roles, far away from the dangers of infected patients, while some health care workers not affiliated with hospitals waited.

 

These inoculations raised eyebrows in light of federal guidelines for "health care personnel" and residents of long-term care facilities to go first.

"Hospitals absolutely are prioritizing front-line health care workers who are at highest risk for exposure to COVID-19," said Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association. He and others said the recipient group was broadened out of concern that no vaccine should go to waste.

The short shelf life of the vaccine once thawed, a need to stagger staff vaccinations and hesitancy of some direct-care staff all contributed, they said.

Employers can't require vaccination, "and not all front-line workers are lining up to get the shot. They want to wait and see how it goes," Chun said.

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Each vial of the vaccine contains multiple doses, and vials must be discarded within hours of opening. That played a role in administrative hospital workers getting inoculated, as did guidelines that vaccinating hospital employees who share the same jobs be spread out in case side effects lead some to call in sick. Bad reactions to the vaccine have been few, however.

"When we were certain all had been provided the opportunity to receive the vaccine and, having additional doses to use prior to expiration, we extended the opportunity to associates who may not have daily contact with patients but are still serving them and our communities behind the scenes at our hospitals, including administrative associates," said Timothy Nelson, a spokesman for Amita Health, which operates hospitals and clinics in Chicago and the suburbs, including Amita Alexian Brothers in Elk Grove Village, Amita St. Alexius in Hoffman Estates and Amita St. Joseph in Elgin.

"We estimate that nearly 50% of our associates throughout the system have been vaccinated with the first dose," Nelson said

About 60% of all employees at Edward Hospital in Naperville and Elmhurst Hospital have received vaccinations, according to Keith Hartenberger, a spokesman for Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday said hospitals that have more doses than they need should provide them to others. Chun said that's probably not logistically possible and noted that ultimately as many people as possible should be vaccinated.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You have the vaccine on hand and you want to make sure you use it," he said. "So, many hospitals have made the decision to expand the pool of health care workers who can get the shot beyond front-line workers."

Pritzker said about 850,000 Illinoisans are considered eligible for the first round of vaccinations. The state has received 903,000 doses as of Tuesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pritzker was unconcerned that hospitals are giving the vaccine to employees who are not considered front-line workers.

"Whatever is not being chosen by somebody to have injected in their arm is being given to somebody else at that facility," Pritzker said.

Those eligible for the vaccine in the next round, Phase 1b, include anyone 65 and older and essential nonmedical front-line workers like police, firefighters, EMTs, factory workers and grocery store employees. Pritzker is expected to give more details this week on plans for Phase 1b.

Most county health departments in the suburbs have created portals on their websites allowing residents to register for updates and information about when vaccines will be available to them.

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