In July, stories about Olivia Guidry’s death went viral. The 24-year-old had, earlier in the pandemic, posted a vaccine conspiracy theory to her Twitter account. “This vaccine has been released using recombinant DNA faster than any vaccine in the world,” it read. “Do. Not. Get. It. It’s not safe.” Then, she’d been diagnosed with COVID-19.
It’s a common story: vocal anti-vaxxer meets their end after getting infected. But Guidry’s story had an additional twist—she had worked as a nurse, one of the very professions that is supposed to be helping protect and save people from COVID-19, with tools like the vaccine.
There have been a number of instances of health care workers having high-profile collisions with misinformation about the virus. In November 2020, an oncology nurse in Oregon was placed on leave after mocking mask-wearing in a TikTok video. In January, a health department administrator and four nurses in Kansas refused to administer COVID-19 vaccines, claiming that “it was only studied in 45 people before it was approved.” (The clinical trials for the vaccines involve tens of thousands of people.) Recently, a German nurse who had shared vaccine-skeptical posts on social media injected thousands of patients with saline instead of the COVID-19 vaccine. In August, a surgical technologist in Georgia was fired after likening their hospital’s vaccine requirement to the Holocaust. One particularly unsettling contributor to the genre is a woman whose TikTok account, @lilwildsawfly, has 151,000 followers. She says she’s a phlebotomist (a hospital technician who draws blood) and often posts vaccine misinformation wearing scrubs and a stethoscope while sitting in what appears to be a doctor’s office. In a recent video, she is filming herself crying while driving, with a caption that reads she will be terminated by October 31st if she “can’t get (any) exemption approved.”
These misinformation-spreading medical workers aren’t isolated examples of health professionals rejecting the vaccine. Eight months after the vaccine became available first for frontline health care workers, some hospitals are reporting startling low vaccination rates among staff. At Ochsner Health, one of Louisiana’s largest hospital groups, only 69 percent of employees are fully vaccinated. (That figure is likely to change following a vaccine mandate implemented by Ochsner Health on Aug. 24.) Some states are seeing even lower rates: Only about 50-60 percent of all hospital staff in Alabama are fully vaccinated. An online survey led by Carnegie Mellon University found that 20-23 percent of nursing aides remain vaccine hesitant.
Nursing has been ranked one of the most trusted professions by the public for decades, underlining the damage that misinformation can do in nurses’s hands. Melody Butler, a registered nurse and executive director of Nurses Who Vaccinate, says when an unvaccinated patient is admitted to the hospital, they sometimes say they didn’t get the shot because of misinformation that came from a health care worker. “Some patients will tell us ‘I have a family friend who’s a nurse who suggested I didn’t,’ or they came across some information being shared somewhere and it’s traced back to a medical health care worker,” says Butler. “We’re seeing the effect of anti-vaccine health care workers in real time, from what our patients are telling us when they explain why they didn’t vaccinate,” she said.
In recent months, Tyler, a pulmonary health nurse practitioner, says that he has seen comments on social media from people saying they don’t want to get the vaccine because of something they have seen a nurse post. (Tyler requested his last name not be printed because he has to deal with a significant number of trolls.) “They do this from a position of authority, which I think is abusive for one thing in terms of what our profession stands for and what we train to do,” he explains. Tyler uses his TikTok account, @ThatSassyNP, to debunk false information about the COVID-19 pandemic, including bad information about vaccines, posted by nurses and healthcare professionals.
But the misinformation proliferates outside of social media, too. Crystal M., a registered nurse in New Orleans, says she’s up against a steady stream of misinformation coming from nurses—and sometimes doctors—in her workplace. (She asked to go by her first name and last initial to protect her employment at her hospital.) She said she hears some of her nursing colleagues openly perpetuate misinformation about the vaccine at her workplace, including the conspiracy theory that the government has falsified COVID-19 case numbers and that the vaccines contain a tracking microchip. Some colleagues share misinformation on their personal social media accounts, which Crystal and her colleagues report to Facebook. “I really didn’t have an inkling that people who’ve gone to medical school and nursing school and know the human body processes, know how vaccines work, truly in their heart of hearts believe such things,” Crystal said.
It’s not just misinformation about vaccines that worries Crystal, who says she also hears colleagues rejecting masks, too. “I don’t think it’s right to be in the halls or in that area where a patient can hear you talking about how, you’re tired of wearing a mask or when you’re not at work, you don’t wear a mask and, you’ll stop shopping XYZ if they tell you to wear a mask,” Crystal says. While it makes sense that nurses might be weary of pandemic restrictions, Crystal points out that people are looking to nurses to give them valid information and set good examples.
This is especially vital as America experiences a wave of COVID perpetuated by a highly contagious variant. As the delta variant fills up hospitals, epidemiologists warn that the longer Americans wait to be vaccinated, the more chances even more dangerous variants of the virus have to emerge. But a common refrain from people who have chosen not to get vaccinated is that they want to “wait and see” what the effects of the vaccine are and that they distrust how quickly the vaccine was developed. At her hospital in New Orleans, Crystal said that she has heard nurses cite this as the reason they are not yet vaccinated. “Some people are just saying, ‘Oh, I just want to wait until it’s a little bit longer.’ And my whole thing is like, OK, the house is already on fire. We have to do something now,” she said.
Then there’s the fact that unvaccinated nurses can post a physical risk to their patients—especially those who are at higher risk for the virus. Tyler, the NP who posts educational material about the vaccines on TikTok, said he helped his mother through chemotherapy and radiation after she was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. The experience gave him a heightened sense of the risk posed by unvaccinated health care workers. He said he has heard concerns from his followers and close friends about the possibility of needing to get medical care, and winding up with a nurse who refuses to get vaccinated. While he assures them that the majority of health care workers adhere to evidence-based practices, he also acknowledges that patient fears about healthcare workers who believe misinformation is a very real issue. “The damage being done by these nurses is extremely palpable,” says Tyler.
Part of that damage is that for some vaccinated nurses, there is a sense of being sabotaged by their own colleagues in the race to curb the pandemic death toll. Rosa Crumpton, a registered nurse who works in nursing management, said while she doesn’t like to view health care workers who spread misinformation as malignant, she understands why frustrations about them are mounting. “If I’m somebody who knows that I’ve made sacrifices, I’m vaccinated, I feel like I’ve done all the things to protect myself, to be there for my coworkers and my team and my patients, and to feel like somebody else, for whatever the reasons, isn’t pulling as much weight can definitely cause some animosity,” she said.
As more vaccine mandates are enacted in hospitals around the country, the vaccination rate among hospital staff may improve. But some of the nurses I spoke to worried that those rules could also exacerbate another problem: the nursing staff shortage. Crumpton said she has seen nurses draw a hard line in the sand, saying if they’re forced to be vaccinated, they will retire, attempt to get an exemption, or quit nursing altogether. It’s a worry that Crystal shares: “I know someone who basically said that they are willing to basically put their nursing career on hold and work somewhere like a bar or a restaurant because they’re not going to get vaccinated.”
But there’s hope that some nurses will change their minds. Butler, who leads Nurses Who Vaccinate, was herself was once affected by vaccine misinformation–during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, while pregnant. She said that she only got the vaccine after a nursing educator sat down with her and debunked information Butler had read online. Convincing someone—nurse or not—to get vaccinated takes four things, says Butler: compassion, patience, persistence, and education. “Even for those who are a little stubborn, I have seen it. It takes a lot of persistence and a lot of patience.”