Is the wait over with a COVID-19 vaccine?

GreGory Komarow, Chief Human Resources Officer at Sheikh Khalifa General Hospital, tells us why a COVID-19 vaccine for hospital employees comes with complexities and what hospitals can do as we wait for this vaccine.

A hospital should be a safe place not only for patients but also for employees; a place where employees can do their jobs without being at unnecessary risk and where patients don’t have worries besides their current afflictions.

When infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, threaten the population, we turn to immunisation to maintain patient safety and workplace safety. But this is not as easy as it sounds.

GreGory Komarow, Chief Human Resources Officer at Sheikh Khalifa General Hospital, understands why employees will be reluctant on getting COVID-19 vaccination, whenever it becomes available. The vaccine’s efficacy, primarily, tends to be the concern of staff albeit knowing they are regularly exposed to the infection.

A lot of unknowns

You wouldn’t want to take a new medication unless you know it’s 100% safe, would you? The same goes for vaccination. Although immunisation is one of the most cost-effective health interventions there is, the case depends on the vaccine.

Vaccination for COVID-19 is anticipated to be available at the end of this year or early next year. As it’s still at the earliest stages, there are a lot of unknowns about it: side effects, follow-on effects, safety year over year, and uncertainty on dosage for each population group. Compare this with the influenza vaccine, we can readily show evidence that shows it as a safe vaccine.

Not everyone is convinced on COVID-19 vaccine’s efficacy, therefore, we cannot expect everyone to sign up for it, says Komarow. So even if the government makes it available for all frontline workers, it will be difficult to enforce.

As of writing, there is no existing regulation in the United Arab Emirates that requires a COVID-19 vaccination as a prerequisite for employment. Hospitals are given the option to decide for their organisations.

At Sheikh Khalifa General Hospital, immunisation is encouraged but not mandated. “We have an occupational health policy that covers every part of employees’ general health, including mental health, and we offer certain vaccines to employees at no cost, for example, the influenza vaccine,” Komarow shares.

Information about a vaccine is highly important in getting more employees to take it voluntarily. Komarow highlights how their campaigns about the influenza vaccine made more front liners get vaccinated. “We gave them proper education about the vaccine, what it does and how safe it is, and dispelled myths about it.”

Hence, should the COVID-19 vaccine prove to be effective, it is possible that hospitals would require the vaccine for their frontline staff. Komarow believes this will ultimately be an entire country healthcare regulation rather than individual hospital level, but as there just isn’t enough information right now, he thinks mandating it for employees “can go either way.”

While we wait

Nevertheless, we just can’t sit in a corner and wait for a vaccine. We have to look at the broader picture, and for Komarow, this picture dictates an obligation “to ensure wherever we can mitigate risk for employees, patients, and the community at large.”

Mitigating risks without a vaccine include infection control measures. Hospitals, including Sheikh Khalifa General Hospital, instigated measures as soon as they realised that COVID-19 is an all-over type thing. Personal protective equipment, N95 masks, disposable gowns, and gloves were immediately secured. Information on proper hand hygiene was quickly disseminated.

Looking at their air handling system was also an important measure: Was the air return isolated? Was it going straight out? Was it linking to other areas? Where are the air ducts located? Are the filters in place? Sheikh Khalifa General Hospital also dedicated entire wings for COVID-19 patients so the facility had negative pressure and the airflow could not come out to the general hospital.

We have also seen hospitals providing barriers and limiting staff interactions with patients, possible through telemedicine and drop-off pharmacies. Patient flow was likewise restricted. The number of people who could accompany patients was limited.

A vaccine might be available to in the next couple of months or the next year, but there’s no guarantee that healthcare employees would want to get vaccinated. Until then, we don’t loosen our grip and assure our staff that in doing their jobs, they don’t have to worry to be at any unnecessary risk to their safety.

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