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Lawyers will be the first to tell you to never trust lawyers. They see first-hand how the sausage is made: how regulatory loopholes are exploited, how clients can be pushed toward resolutions that aren’t necessarily in their best interests, how the one who barely passed the bar exam is somehow entrusted to divvy up a multimillion-dollar estate. As is true in most professions, lawyers are privy to the behind-the-scenes complications that only occasionally spill out to the wider population. That’s why lawyers are often the biggest skeptics of their profession: They see what happens when the law, and lawyers, fail.

That reasoning may partly explain why a small segment of those who work in medicine and health care are still genuinely hesitant about receiving COVID-19 vaccines. That’s not to imply these workers are privy to some nefarious information about the vaccines that the rest of us don’t have – it cannot be overstated just how safe, well-tested and effective the shots are – but merely to point out that health care workers are human, and they may be influenced by the limitations and complications they witness firsthand in Canadian health care.

Nurses, for example, who have spent their careers treating thalidomide patients or patients dealing with OxyContin addiction (a drug that was once marketed as less addictive than other painkillers) may be more skeptical than most about the business interests of pharmaceutical companies, or about the unknown long-term effects of new vaccines. That doesn’t necessarily make them “anti-science,” as some might label. People just tend to be more affected by personal experience – patients’ faces, witnessing rare complications – than by unemotional graphs and statistics. This is not to excuse health care workers who are hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19 (a group distinct from the even smaller minority who are militant anti-vaxxers), but to try to make sense of the paradox.

There has been plenty of research done about general vaccine hesitancy among those who work in medicine, and a handful of more recent studies about concerns health care workers have about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine specifically. A running theme is a distrust of pharmaceutical companies, as well as concerns about lingering side effects and possible complications.

An Israeli study conducted back when COVID-19 vaccines were still in development found that respondents who worked in COVID-19 wards were much more likely to say they would receive a vaccine (94 per cent) than those who worked in other departments (77 per cent), with the latter group expressing concerns about safety and side effects. A German study conducted in February, 2021, found a high correlation between health care workers who were reluctant to be vaccinated and a mistrust of medical and political authorities. And a Canadian study from December, 2020, identified “vaccine novelty, wanting others to receive it first, and insufficient time for decision-making” as factors contributing to hesitancy among health care workers – though the relevance of those findings now, in November, 2021, is pretty limited. The Canadian study, like the Israeli study, found that exposure to patients with COVID-19 was a strong indicator of whether health care workers were willing to get vaccinated.

More comprehensive, current research is probably warranted in this area, but the information we do have points to a rather obvious conclusion: that health care workers are people – people who are not impervious to bias, and who are affected by their experiences and the people around them.

There is nevertheless a groundswell of anger being directed at unvaccinated health care workers (and at provincial governments in Quebec and Ontario, which have declined to enact mandates), both for refusing vaccines that will help end this pandemic, and for serving as poor role models for those without medical backgrounds. Many have said that health care workers who don’t believe in vaccines shouldn’t be working in health care, which is a defensible argument but for the chronic underfunding and understaffing. B.C. had to cancel some surgeries and diagnostic tests after it lost a few thousand staffers when its mandate for health care workers came into effect earlier this month.

Resentment toward these workers (and toward governments) may be justified, and it certainly serves a cathartic purpose for those who have complied dutifully with public health instructions and yearn for an end to restrictions. But energy is better spent trying to understand the unique circumstances that create vaccine-hesitant health care workers than decrying that they exist. Their hesitancy may be a consequence of the failures in Canadian health care as much as it is, especially during this pandemic, a contributor.

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