In Georgia, health workers are preparing for the busy winter season amid concerns about COVID-19 and a surge in influenza

“Does it hurt?” asks Lela Beradze kindly while administering a flu vaccine to a health worker at the Botchorishvili Clinic, a major hospital in Tbilisi, Georgia. Lela is the head nurse in the hospital’s emergency room and has been a registered nurse for 35 years. Your knowledge of vaccines is extensive.

She explains that the influenza vaccine is effective in protecting against the virus, adding that giving the vaccine in October or November will have the greatest effect. “Influenza is common among older people. The risk of an influenza outbreak [as the cold season approaches] is high. An important part of the solution to this is the influenza vaccine.”

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Lela emphasizes that vaccinations play an important role. “I’ve seen with my own eyes that people who have been vaccinated have had milder forms of COVID-19 and recovered earlier. Those who were unvaccinated suffered from severe forms of COVID-19 or died.”

Despite being very different viruses, COVID-19 and influenza have some things in common. They are both respiratory diseases and both can cause serious illness or be life-threatening, especially for the elderly, pregnant women, people with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, or healthcare workers.

Health workers like Lela are very vulnerable to COVID-19 and influenza infections because of their job. You risk contracting the disease yourself and spreading those diseases to vulnerable patients. In addition, since health workers are a primary and trusted source of information, if their patients are positive about vaccination, they are more likely to be vaccinated.

Nonetheless, the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines among health workers varies across the WHO European Region, which includes 53 countries in Europe and Central Asia. Immunization coverage was particularly low in some middle-income countries in the eastern part of the Region, including Georgia.

While the lack of availability of COVID-19 vaccines and other factors have contributed to this low uptake, vaccine reluctance remains a challenge among some healthcare workers.

According to the latest data collected by Georgia’s NCDC, uptake of a first batch (2 doses) of the COVID-19 vaccine among the country’s health workers is 60-80%. However, according to WHO/Europe, coverage with an additional booster dose in this risk group is only 18%. Influenza vaccine uptake reached 55% according to the latest data from the 2020/2021 season.

So, which health workers in Georgia were more likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19? What factors influenced their decision to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or not? And did it make a difference if they were previously vaccinated against influenza?

These are some of the questions that a study published this year by the WHO Regional Office for Europe and the NCDC of Georgia sought to answer.

Uptake of COVID-19 vaccines among health workers

Conducted between March and July 2021, the study evaluated the factors associated with early uptake of COVID-19 vaccines among over 1500 healthcare workers, including Lela and many of her colleagues, at 6 major hospitals in Tbilisi and Batumi.

It turned out that at this point, 17% of the study participants had received 1 dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Those more likely to receive the vaccine included older health workers, particularly those aged 50 to 59; health workers who viewed the vaccines as “fairly effective” or “very effective” rather than “not effective”; and medical personnel who had been vaccinated against influenza in the past.

In fact, health workers who had been vaccinated against influenza in the past were three times more likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The study also found that other categories of health workers – including nurses and midwives, administrative staff and support staff – were less likely to have received the COVID-19 vaccine compared to doctors.

“This study can play a crucial role in designing stronger vaccination campaigns. Understanding the reasons for the low uptake of vaccines by health workers is crucial if we are to increase the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in this important population group,” said Silviu Domente, WHO Representative and Head of the WHO Country Office in Georgia.

“Adapting COVID-19 vaccine communication campaigns to younger and non-physician health workers and further emphasizing the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine could help further increase immunization coverage among Georgia’s health workers,” he adds.

Richard Pebody, head of the team for high-risk pathogens at the WHO Regional Office for Europe and coordinator of the study, said: “Our results suggest that a strong vaccination program for healthcare workers against the annual seasonal influenza can help reduce the uptake of the COVID-19 19 vaccine and also strengthen preparedness for the next pandemic – by ensuring that health workers are also vaccinated in the event of a future pandemic that is not caused by influenza or COVID-19.”

Considering that just over half of Georgia’s health workers have been vaccinated against influenza and that the COVID-19 vaccination rate in this group is relatively low, more work is needed to understand health workers’ decisions about vaccinations and the effectiveness and Better to convey the vaccines safety.

As of October 2022, only 30% of the population of Georgia had completed the COVID-19 vaccine series and 32% had received at least 1 dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Vaccination against COVID-19 and influenza – the most important thing this fall and winter

Back at the clinic, Lela makes her unit’s rounds. She makes sure everything is running smoothly and makes sure her patients are getting the care and attention they need. She exudes calm authority and professionalism.

Today, the department is relatively quiet — a welcome change from last year, when COVID-19 hospitalizations in Georgia hit 21% among the unvaccinated. With renewed surges in COVID-19 cases in several countries in the region and an early rise in influenza, vaccination against both diseases among vulnerable groups remains crucial this fall and winter.

“The pandemic has shown us the important role vaccinations play in our health. Getting vaccinated means not only protecting yourself, but also protecting those around you,” says Lela.

A colleague of Lela’s, 41-year-old nurse Eliso Matcharashvili, has just been vaccinated against influenza. “Every fall I look forward to the arrival of flu vaccines so I can get vaccinated and protect myself and my patients,” she says. “The vaccine offers a high level of protection for all health workers and especially for health workers who, like me, work in large hospitals.”

The advice of the WHO Regional Office for Europe is clear: there is an urgent need to protect the health of people, especially the most vulnerable, by using all available tools, including vaccination. It is also important that people comply with personal protective measures such as B. washing hands regularly, keeping your distance from other people if they are unwell with a respiratory condition, and wearing well-fitting masks, especially in crowded, closed environments with insufficient ventilation.