When Miles Lee took a job last fall in long-term care, he didn’t know his optimism over a vaccine for a deadly pandemic would put him front and center in helping his peers deal with vaccine hesitancy.
Lee, a life enrichment aide at Forest Hills of the District of Columbia, an inclusive senior living community, is also a vaccine ambassador in his community. That role landed him in the spotlight as a featured speaker during a national town hall co-hosted by LeadingAge last night addressing concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine among workers in aging services.
Lee shared his story earlier on Thursday during a LeadingAge membership call. He said that even before there was news of a coronavirus vaccine, he was thinking that as soon as he was eligible, he planned to get vaccinated against this disease.
“I’ve seen a lot of unnecessary suffering from this disease that popped up out of nowhere. People are suffering mentally from being stuck inside, financially from a recession this has caused, and physically from the side effects of this disease,” Lee said. “I wanted this thing to be over and done as fast as possible.
“I believe we have the tools to help solve this issue; we should use them.”
During his daily interactions with fellow staff members, Lee learned that some had questions about the vaccine ingredients and the pharmaceutical companies making the vaccines. So he started using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website to explain information related to the vaccines.
It worked. Forest Hills took notice and tapped him to be a vaccine ambassador. Administrators provided him with factual information to share with his peers, and he shared his experience after receiving his own vaccination.
Forest Hills CEO Tina Sandri said that although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a recommendation that communities could mandate the vaccine, Forest Hills feared that doing so would put them at risk of losing staff members during a nursing shortage. Sandri said they also believed it would “add insult to injury to force staff to put an emergency use authorized substance into their bodies to stay employed.
“That would be inconsistent with our cultural values,” Sandri continued. Instead, members of the leadership team educated themselves about vaccinations and began sharing information to staff members via emails, text messages, phone calls, staff huddles at shift change, positive message boards, posters and handouts.
Forest Hills, which has a predominantly Black and Pacific Islander staff makeup, has almost 70% staff member uptake of the vaccine. Sandri said she expects the community to reach herd immunity after its third vaccine clinic.
Lee also shared his story, and that of his community, Thursday night during “Making It Plain: A Town Hall On COVID-19 and Vaccines for the Dedicated People Who Work in Aging Services,” hosted by LeadingAge, in partnership with the Black Coalition Against COVID.
In addition to speakers from LeadingAge and its membership and BCAC, the virtual event included speakers from the CDC, the White House COVID-19 Response Team, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Howard University, frontline workers, Black health academicians, researchers, clinicians and African American medical organizations.
“Achieving a high rate of staff vaccinations will be a game changer in fighting COVID in aging services,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said. “The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are real and varied. We need to acknowledge the experience of Black people with systemic racism in the medical community, put their voices front and center, and recognize that the newness of the vaccines contributes to fear of side effects.”
Sloan said the town hall was an important opportunity for care providers to talk with leading experts about the safety and effectiveness of COVID vaccines, as well as with their peers, who shared first-hand experiences about getting vaccinated.