“There is an extraordinary sense of relief — I wish they would include that on the list of side effects!”
For Iris Reyes, MD, a professor of Emergency Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, getting the COVID-19 vaccine was a no brainer. “Seeing so many people contract COVID and watching them deteriorate or have complications drove my desire to decrease my risk of getting this disease,” she said. “The alternative is just not worth it.”
Reyes is one of more than 20,000 Penn Medicine employees who have been vaccinated since the COVID-19 vaccine was first administered at the health system on December 16. She is also one of a growing number of faculty and staff who are stepping up as ambassadors to counteract vaccine hesitancy. The mission is powered, in part, by Penn Medicine researchers’ own role in the development of the mRNA technology of the two vaccines currently in use.
“As a physician, I very much trust the science behind the vaccine,” Reyes added. “It is just fantastic that we have an option to combat a disease that has so many complications. We should all definitely take advantage.”
Reyes’ message in support of vaccination — along with similar calls to action from other employees — will be featured in a system-wide poster campaign that highlights peer role models who encourage vaccination. The message from the employees involved in the campaign is loud and clear: getting vaccinated is the right thing to do to protect yourself and others, and research demonstrates that it’s safe. These familiar faces include representatives from every corner of the health system’s work force, from physicians to environmental services personnel to nurses to security guards to food services staff.
Posters will appear in Penn Medicine facilities, including on digital signs and computer screensavers, across the region, including in public areas of hospitals and clinics that patients and families will have the opportunity to see as the vaccine becomes available to the public in the coming months.
“I want to be part of the solution — not another COVID-19 statistic,” said Pete Schiavo, a hemostasis technician at Pennsylvania Hospital. “I’ve worked in the ICU, and I’ve seen what this virus can do. Now is the time for us to move in the right direction.”
John Dixon, a food service worker at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. “We have to start somewhere,” he said. “I wanted to be one of the first people to get the vaccine to show others that it hasn’t affected me in any negative way. Fear will stop us from moving forward. I’m happy to show others that this vaccine is healthy and safe.”
For most employees, receiving the COVID-19 vaccination is just like getting any other shot.
Two weeks after getting his vaccine Dixon said, “I’ve felt great ever since. I felt a little sting in my arm — a little soreness — but that’s the same with the flu shot.”
Justin Grilli, director of Culinary Operations at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, had a similar experience. “I had no problems at all,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions, so it’s important to remember that the vaccine does not include any of the live virus that causes COVID-19. To me, it’s a positive thing to be on the forefront of the movement that will allow us to return to normal.”
As a respiratory technician at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Michelle James is frequently in close contact with COVID-19 patients. She is also particularly passionate about vaccination because of the impact the coronavirus has had on her health and the health of a loved one. After being diagnosed with COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, James was out of work for more than a month, and her husband was transported to the hospital by an ambulance and placed on a ventilator. Both have made a full recovery, but James uses her experience to encourage others to get vaccinated.
“We know exactly what COVID can — and will — do,” she said. “We have to trust the science and recognize that this is a much better alternative.”
Shakasee Daniels, a service technician in environmental services at Pennsylvania Hospital, also has personal experience with the disease. “COVID-19 has impacted my household, and I’ve seen firsthand what it does to patients in the ICU,” she said. “The vaccine is an opportunity for us to get this disease under control and go back to normal.”
Ultimately, these role models hope their personal experiences — showcased through the poster campaign — will encourage vaccination among employees and, eventually, the public once the vaccine becomes widely available.
“As a Black physician, this is an opportunity to say to others, ‘We would not ask you to do anything we would not do ourselves,’” said Florencia Greer Polite, MD, chief of the Division of General Obstetrics and Gynecology. “The benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks of the vaccine and certainly outweigh the risks of COVID-19. I believe that this vaccine is vital in the efforts to decrease the destruction caused by the coronavirus.”
Polite is one of several Black and other minority members of the workforce who are dedicated to sharing their knowledge and addressing the issue of vaccine hesitancy among minority groups both within Penn Medicine and among the wider public. In a powerful commentary for The Grio, she noted that the Black community has reasons for distrust in the medical system based on the many health disparities that exist today. “The COVID-19 vaccine has the opportunity to either further exacerbate the effects of this devastating disease or begin to close the gap in this most recent example of health-care disparities,” she wrote, outlining the many reasons to trust the science behind the safety of the vaccine.
James is also eager to encourage vaccination within the Black community. “I want people to see someone they can relate to getting the vaccine,” she said. “Some of my friends are being vaccinated just because they saw me do it.”
Stefanie Erdmann, RDN, director for Food Services at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, hopes to set a good example for her colleagues, family and community members. “There’s always the fear of the unknown, but it comes down to doing what’s best for our community and our family,” she said. “We’ve been in a state of limbo for a long time, and we finally have a glimmer of hope.”