“I think that the history of medical experimentation on Black people plays a role in some of the decision making,” Ms. Wisdom said of why about half her nursing staff remained unvaccinated. “It is real, and it is something we have to talk about. And then find a way to continue that dialogue.”
The early weeks of the vaccine rollout saw widespread hesitancy among hospital workers in the nation and New York State, with less than half of eligible workers vaccinated by early January. In the city’s public hospitals, the number was even lower, at 31 percent.
That earned the ire of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “This is a management issue for the hospitals,” he said at a Jan. 4 news conference.
While other hospitals’ vaccination rates improved, Harlem Hospital was among those that lagged. In late January, Mr. Cuomo singled out the institution repeatedly at news conferences for having the lowest rate in the city, 37 percent. The approach rankled Ms. Carrington, who felt she was being punished for having a Black and brown staff whose worries she was trying to address. Her mother called to express concern when she heard the governor’s harsh words.
“Mom, I don’t care,” Ms. Carrington said she told her.
Harlem Hospital has been trying to get the rate up with an “outreach blitz” that includes publicity, town halls and one-on-one conversations. Its current vaccination rate among staff, 51 percent, puts it in “the middle” of the 11 hospitals in the city’s public system, the city said, but still well below the near 80 percent average vaccination rate for hospitals in New York State as a whole.
Some nurses told their supervisors that they didn’t feel a pressing need to get the vaccine, because they already had Covid-19, Ms. Wisdom said. The hospital was hit hard by the virus, with about 200 patient deaths from last March to September. The fatality rate was 36.6 percent, among the highest in the city, according to data the hospital reported to the state.
There is now no shortage of personal protective equipment so some staff said they felt more secure.
“Staff are saying, ‘I almost died in the first wave, I’m good,’” Ms. Carrington said. “There is this invincibility that it’s hard for me to offset.”