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Why some caregivers hesitate to get the coronavirus vaccine

January 7, 2021

The coronavirus vaccine is seen as the only way to combat the pandemic. Medical and nursing staff are at high risk of contracting and spreading the disease. So why do many of them in Germany not want to get vaccinated?

nurse in protective gear drawing the vaccine into a syringe
Many German doctors and nurses are wary of the new COVID vaccinesImage: Frank Molter/dpa/picture alliance

Berlin's Bethel Hospital in the tranquil south of the capital is a rather small institution, far removed from the hustle and bustle of large clinics. But of course, the coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. 

A once-vacant ward has been converted for vaccinations. But what is still missing is the vaccine itself, as with so many other locations in Germany. That is somewhat frustrating, says senior physician and pandemic officer Hans Weigeldt. After all, he says, the vaccine is required to offer a glimmer of hope after months of hard work, to lift the spirits of health workers. 

Sebastian Schmidt standing in a hospital corridor, wearing a face mask
Nurse Sebastian Schmidt wants to be vaccinated as soon as possible, to protect himself and others.Image: Tessa Walther

'Protect not just me, but also relatives!' 

Intensive care nurse Sebastian Schmidt also wants to be vaccinated against the coronavirus as soon as he can. "I see coronavirus-related deaths every day at work and see how patients suffer, how seriously ill patients are because of this virus, and I definitely want to get vaccinated against it," he tells DW. "Also not only to protect myself but also my relatives. I have a responsibility to do my bit to protect others." 

'I'm not going to be the first in line!'

This, one would imagine, is the general attitude of all doctors and nurses towards the long-awaited vaccination. But in fact, the picture is far more nuanced. The view of nurse Vivien Kochmann, at the Bethel Hospital, is an example of this. For months, she has been meticulously observing the social distancing rules, wearing a facemask, washing her hands. As a mother of a small child, she has had to take extra care, drastically reducing her contacts. 

But when it comes to vaccinations, she says, she doesn't want to go straight to the front of the line, preferring to wait: "I'm cautious here and a bit wary of the whole thing. I'm worried because the vaccine hasn't been around long enough to be able to just say: 'Ok, I'm now 100% convinced of it.' But that's just my personal feeling." 

Vivian Kochmann
Nurse Vivian Kochmann fears possible long-term side-effects of the vaccineImage: Tessa Walther

But Kochmann is not an anti-vaxxer. Indeed, she has been vaccinated against many diseases. But she has been working at the hospital long enough to know how much time is needed before a vaccine really takes effect. Maybe, she hopes, the vaccines will get better over the course of the year. And, above all, so will the information about the possible risks involved. 

More than 50% of nurses reluctant 

Skepticism is not uncommon among medical staff in Germany. A survey conducted by the "German Society for Internal Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine" (DGIIN) and the "German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine" (DIVI) back in December last year showed that only 73% of doctors, and just under 50% of nurses, in Germany want to be vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2. Although a clear majority of respondents said the vaccine was important to contain the pandemic. 

A spokesman for a German federation of care homes, BPA, however, paints a rather confusing picture. BPA President, Bernd Meurer, said: "We know of care facilities where almost 100% of the staff are vaccinated. In others, two-thirds have refused to do so."

Health Minister Jens Spahn struck a similar note this week. He spoke of nursing homes where vaccination is already being carried out and where the vaccination rate among the staff has reached 80%. However, in other homes he said, the rate is only 20%.


Not in the high-risk category? 

The reasons for this vaccine skepticism are currently the subject of heated debate in Germany. The health expert of the SPD in the Bundestag, Karl Lauterbach, himself an epidemiologist, suspects that many doctors and nurses believe that they do not belong in the high-risk group and are well protected by special clothing. 

In contrast, the survey in December identified fear of long-term side effects, as the main reason for rejecting the vaccine. In fact, the staff at other clinics in Berlin told DW that some women were worried about the risks involved if they later went on to become pregnant.

BPA president Meurer brings another argument into play: even after receiving the vaccine, nurses would still have to wear a mask, so the inoculation would not bring any immediate relief. And it is still unclear whether one could infect others even after receiving the vaccine.


Elderly woman receiving the vaccine, looking at the doctor
Older people in nursing homes are among the first to be vaccinated, a minority of them is skepticalImage: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

Many doctors and nurses have antibodies

A nurse at a hospital in Brandenburg, who spoke to DW under the condition of anonymity, said he was skeptical of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, of which he had already received the first dose. "It does not prevent infection with the coronavirus. It only prevents the actual outbreak of the COVID-19 disease. So I can imagine that others prefer to wait for other vaccines." Many doctors and nurses, he adds, have already been infected with the virus, recovered, and have formed antibodies. And therefore do not need the vaccine. 

But in his work environment, he says all colleagues would get vaccinated. "We have seen too often in the last few months what the virus can do."

Meanwhile, the overall willingness to be vaccinated has increased in Germany. The monthly Deutschlandtrend poll records 54% of those polled as saying they want to be vaccinated. That is a marked rise compared to last November.

Added to this are 21%, who say they'd "probably" want to receive the vaccine. German scientists have said over 60% of the population needs to be vaccined to achieve the so-called herd immunity. This, in turn, would be enough to contain the pandemic.

This article has been translated from German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau