‘The Idiocy Continues’: Nurses Refuse to Give COVID Shots
Kansas is in the middle of a coronavirus emergency, but some health-care workers are spreading misinformation instead of healing.
In a country where up to a third of health-care workers decline the COVID vaccine, all four nurses at a rural Kansas county health department have taken the unreasoning distrust of science a step further by refusing even to give the shots to those who want them.
“My staff is not comfortable with that,” Health Department administrator Lindsay Payer told the Coffey County Board of Commissioners at a meeting earlier this month.
A video of the meeting in the county courthouse shows that all five commissioners were wearing masks, but Payer was not. A majority of the board had deemed that to be her right when they voted to opt out of a statewide mask mandate in late November.
A majority of Americans had just voted not to give Trump a second term at least in part because of his disastrous handling of the pandemic. But the anti-science alternate universe Trump created persists, calling into question even the warp-speed vaccine approval that was his one success in fighting COVID-19. The skepticism may also hamper President-elect Joe Biden’s effort to quell the virus.
“It’s a new technology. We’ve never seen it before. It was only studied in 45 people before it was approved,” Payer falsely said of the COVID-19 vaccines.
The actual number of participants in the clinical trials of the two vaccines was more than 73,000.
“The companies that have made the vaccine… all liability is gone from them,” Payer added. “So, if there’s anything bad about the vaccine it doesn’t go back to them. That’s widely known, and it’s somewhat discomforting to a nurse who has to put that in people’s bodies.”
In fact, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act—signed into law in 1986 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011—protects vaccine makers in general from product-liability lawsuits. That includes the makers of the vaccines that Payer and her fellow nurses routinely administer to babies at 2, 4 and 6 months without hesitation.
Nevertheless, she voiced concern that those who prescribe and administer the COVID vaccines might suffer legal and/or professional consequences.
“We don’t want to put anybody at risk,” she said, her words unmuffled by a mask and therefore imbued with unintentional irony. “I’m not going to put my license on the line.”
Payer might have calibrated risk in a pandemic if she worked with someone such as Casey Pickering, nurse manager of a 23-bed ICU at the Kansas University Health System. Pickering was one of the first to get the shot there, and did so thinking of the many patients her unit lost who might have been saved.
“I got it for all the people whose lives have been cut tragically short,” Pickering told The Daily Beast. “So many people have died before they were given the opportunity to get it.”
Pickering’s calibration of risk includes one particular item in the inventory of supplies the unit used in December.
“The most body bags I’ve ever gone through in a month,” Pickering said.
Word of the four balking nurses in Coffey County, first reported by local TV station WIBW, has reached the American Nurses Association (ANA.) The ANA’s director of nursing practice and work environments, Katie Boston-Leary, suggested that the situation dramatizes the need for nurses to be better educated about health-care issues so they can, in turn, educate patients. She said nurses in Coffey County and everywhere else need to have the facts. And providing the facts is accompanied by a particular challenge these days.
“Busting myths that are so prevalent in the atmosphere, which is something we’ve never seen before,” Austin-Boston said.
Last month, the ANA joined the American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association in issuing a joint open letter to “all health-care professionals” emphasizing the importance of high rates of vaccination “if we hope to overcome this virus.”
“As frontline caregivers, our essential role in protecting the health and well being of our communities goes beyond the care we provide,” the letter says. “As a valued and trusted voice, our example is perhaps the strongest health resource we have.”
At least Payer did not stoop to the level of the Wisconsin hospital pharmacist who was charged late last month with intentionally destroying 570 doses of the vaccine on the disproven belief that it alters people’s DNA. Payer is not seeking to prevent those who want the virus from getting the shots.
“So, we will find nurses that are willing to do that,” Payer told the board. “I am not. My staff is not at this time.”
She sounded surprisingly resigned for somebody on the frontline of a still desperate fight.
“I think it’s safe to say that COVID is endemic now in our community,” she said. “We know it’s here to stay. We know it can’t be controlled. It’s a virus. You can’t stop a virus. We’re still doing everything we can, but it is what it is.”
Actually, one established way to curb, if not completely control a virus is to wear a mask. And both the approved vaccines have proven able to stop it more than 90 percent of the time.
“It’s just going to be part of what we have to deal with now,” she predicted of COVID. “As a community, we probably need to make some decisions about what that means, and how much more resources we’re going to be putting forward on this. Knowing that it’s here, it’s like the cold or flu.”
The comparison between COVID and the flu was a central part of the minimization of the danger that contributed to a maximization of the death count that is now more than 330,000 Americans and rising.
“It’s normal now,” Payer said. “That’s just what it is.”
The scariest thing about Payer was that she did not seem at all scary. She herself appeared entirely normal, altogether pleasant, and admirably dedicated, however misdirected.
“It’s a very interesting time in public health,” she said. “I can’t wait to get back at it.”
At the board’s next meeting, on Jan. 11, the county’s medical director, Dr. Jeff Sloyer, took to the podium where Payer had stood.
“After the meeting last week, there was a little bit of commotion on social media,” he reported.
Sloyer has been in the job only since last November, having succeeded the county’s longtime medical director, Dr. John Shell, who felt compelled to resign when the board ignored his recommendation supporting a mask mandate. Shell had described to the board a case involving a bride who insisted nobody wear a mask at her wedding. Her father soon after died of COVID.
After noting the online hubbub resulting from Payer’s remarks, Sloyer provided the board with the actual number of participants in the vaccine trials.
“I think that's good,” he said.
He reported, “For the record, we want to ensure people that want the COVID vaccine in Coffey County have the opportunity to get that.”
On Thursday, as Biden was preparing to unveil an emergency COVID plan with an emphasis on vaccines, Payer confirmed to The Daily Beast that she and her three fellow nurses at the board of health were declining to give the shots. She also reported that she had in fact contracted with nurses who are willing to do so.
“We’re just waiting for the vaccine,” she said.
Meanwhile, COVID cases in Coffey County have declined after a post-Thanksgiving surge that swept the whole nation. The medical director, Sloyer, did not respond to a telephone message from The Daily Beast seeking comment. His predecessor, Shell, had an immediate reaction to the news that all four health department nurses were refusing to administer the COVID vaccine.
“The idiocy continues,” he said.
Shell suggested that the furor over the board’s rejection of a mask mandate may have resulted in more people wearing them, as he had noted going about the county.
“I think mask wearing is better,” he said. “It’s still not perfect, but it’s better.”
He wondered if increased use of masks, along with hand washing and social distancing, may have also led to the sharp decline in flu cases and skin infections that he and other practicing doctors in the county have noted.
“We haven’t seen those kind of cases this winter, which is unusual,” he said.
And because the pandemic is so much more serious than a flu outbreak, he hopes those same precautions will result in a similar effect on a post-Christmas surge in COVID-19 he expected.
“I thought we would have it by now,” he said.
He remains mystified by people such as Payer.
“She doesn’t believe in masks, she doesn’t believe in the vaccine and I don't think she believes it’s a serious illness,” he said.
Shell wondered aloud a question often prompted in the Trump era, which does not seem to have ended as the Biden era begins.
“I don’t know where she’s getting her information,” he said.