Hospitals concerned by staff refusing COVID-19 vaccinations

Narva Hospital.
Narva Hospital. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

While there has been much discussion in the media about vaccines being administered to people who are not in risk groups in recent days, healthcare establishments in Estonia have their own concerns as many caregivers have refused the coronavirus vaccine outright.

The city of Narva has been troubled by the coronavirus since fall 2020 with the disease claiming the life of an experienced doctor, among many others. Yet, Narva Hospital's chief physician Dr. Olev Sillandi said the number of vaccinations carried out at the hospital so far is quite low. Of the 670 hospital employees, only 217 have been vaccinated so far and approximately the same number of staff have contracted the virus.

"We can presume that the 183 people hope the natural immunity lasts for a long time, but data says you can feel bold for about 90 days and after that it gets suspicious. Either way, we have to do more explanatory work for them and our colleagues," Sillandi noted.

A tenth of the hospital's staff is currently self-isolating after coming into contact with coronavirus so there are also concerns about staffing levels on a day-to-day basis.

Vaccinations could solve this issue but people have to agree to them. However, SIllandi said some employees want to have Russia's "Sputnik" vaccine instead, but as it does not have an EU sales permit, they cannot count on it.

"We also have a few colleagues who have refused their second vaccination," Sillandi added. Some hospitals have started to offer vaccinated employees benefits, but Narva Hospital has not done so in fear of unequal treatment.

Pärnu Hospital's medical director Dr. Veiko Vahula said 80 percent of staff must be vaccinated to ensure patient safety and the hospital is close to meeting this target. Nonetheless, 200 people have refused a vaccine and some of them would prefer to recieve the Russian vaccine instead.

"The main reason why people have refused vaccinations is the existence of contradictory information, either actual or assumed. There are employees who are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant. The main worry is that they fear contradictory information and want to take their time because we are dealing with a completely new disease and vaccine," Vahula said.

However, close to 200 people have gotten over their doubts and have had the vaccine. According to Vahula, there have been discussions in their hospital and within the Estonian Hospitals Association about how to encourage staff to get vaccinated.

"In Pärnu Hospital, we are currently not forcing, threatening or intimidating anyone, we let people choose for themselves," Vahula said.

Caregivers most doubtful about the vaccine

While most doctors are keen to get vaccinated, many people refusing to get vaccinated are caregivers. As their jobs often include looking after people in risk groups this is a big problem.

Since the start of the pandemic, less than a third of caregivers in West Tallinn Central Hospital (Lääne-Tallinna Keskhaigla) have been vaccinated and a little more than 40 percent of nurses, yet those two groups have the highest contact with patients.

Dr. Arkadi Popov, director of the hospital, said many people have concerns because the vaccine was developed so quickly.

"People think that they will see the effects in two or three years' time. That you might feel well now, when you are in good physical shape, but things might be different in a few years," Popov said.

As many of those unwilling to get vaccinated have Russian heritage, Popov said that more has to be done to inform this group. "We have had meetings with colleagues in both languages to explain more and to mitigate fears," the former Health Board emergency medicine chief said.

He noted that information received from different sources plays a part in people refusing vaccines. He is hopeful that an additional vacation day might motivate people to get vaccinated.

Russian propaganda plays a part

So far, the majority of vaccines administered in Estonia have been produced by Pfizer/BioNtech which was developed and made in Europe.

Historian and lecturer at the Estonian Military Academy Igor Kopõtin said Russia has started a propaganda campaign against vaccines developed in the western world, especially Pfizer. "As we know, the Pfizer vaccine is not permitted in Russia," he noted.

The minor side effects of the vaccine are shown in a negative light in the Russian media. Kopõtin, an expert in Russian information operations, said it is a systemic campaign where selective details are highlighted and used for propaganda.

The military historian added the Russian media has great influence in Estonia as many Russians residing here live in Russia's information space. Some of Estonia's Russian-language media also amplifies Russia's positions, either intentionally or unintentionally, Kopõtin said.

"For example, the Russian ambassador's speech in Estonia about the vaccine, which I believe is part of the propaganda campaign," the lecturer said.

Kopõtin noted that it is difficult to say if the case of a high-level Russian diplomat receiving a full coronavirus dose in Ida-Viru Central Hospital (Ida-Viru Keskhaigla) recently could change the attitude of Russian-speaking people in Estonia.

However, it does however show clearly that Russian officials are living a double life: they say one thing, but do another.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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