By Dave Johnson, Phylmar Newsletter Editor
How are you talking to your workforce about the COVID-19 vaccine? Has the discussion started? And how open are you to require them to take it?
It’s not an easy conversation, but one that cannot be put off, even if the slowly developing rollout continues through the summer, say business leaders and public health officials.
Here are six steps you can take to engage your employees, ensure transparency, build trust and minimize polarizing and unproductive communications and policies:
1 Start making plans now
Most non-healthcare employees will be lower on the priority list for vaccination. Employers will need to be patient. The amount and timing of doses available to millions of employees remains uncertain. There is no concrete timetable.
Use this delay to develop an action plan as a part of your vaccination policy. Determine what resources will be made available to support your vaccination plan. Be prepared and be proactive. Have a policy framework in place and a communication plan as wider availability of the vaccine comes into view.
Designate a person or multi-disciplinary committee to develop and oversee your company’s plan of action.
Monitor the vaccine distribution plan websites of all states relevant to your operations.
Anticipate where your workforce fits into these state priority distribution plans. Communicate with the state health department about your workers’ priority.
Consider whether you want to request or lobby for your workforce to be included in a priority designation or moved up in the priority list. This is where health and safety, public policy and politics intersect. Consider contacting your local political representatives, health officials, and industry organizations.
2 Familiarize yourself with state vaccination distribution plans
Each state is responsible for determining the priority for distribution of the vaccinations to individuals in each state.
It is important to understand that not all states are following the guidelines of the CDC and to know what the priority for distribution is in each of the states where your company has operations.
Phase 1a of the vaccine includes front-line health personnel, and residents of long-term care facilities. Some states have determined that first responders should be included in phase 1a distribution.
Phase 1b focuses on persons over 75 years of age and “frontline” essential workers. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (AICP) has clarified that approximately 30 million “frontline” essential workers include: first responders (firefighters, police, etc.), educators (teachers, support staff, daycare), food and agriculture workers, manufacturing employees, corrections workers, U.S. Postal Service workers, public transit workers, and grocery store workers.
The AICP defines “essential workers” as those who are essential to continue critical infrastructure and maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily, and workers in those industries who cannot perform their duties remotely and must work in close proximity to others. Keep that in mind: “close proximity.”
The ACIP distinguishes between “frontline” essential workers and “other” essential workers, identifying those “other” essential workers to include workers in the following services and industries: transportation and logistics, food service, shelter and housing or construction, financial industry, IT & communication, energy, media, legal, public safety (engineers), and water and wastewater.
Phase 1c of the vaccination roll-out was yet to be defined as we went to press. The ACIP recommends this phase would include persons 65 to 74 years old, persons 16 to 64 years old with high-risk medical conditions, and “other” essential workers.
Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the vaccine roll-out is still in development. The expected criteria for distribution in Phase 2 and Phase 3 will likely include individuals 16 to 64 without high-risk medical conditions, non-essential workers, individuals in homeless shelters or group homes and staff working in such institutions, individuals incarcerated and staff who work in such settings, and other older adults not covered in earlier phases.
3 To mandate or encourage: examine the issues
CNN recently reported that nearly three-quarters of CEOs polled at a virtual summit held by Yale signaled they would be open to vaccine mandates.
Being “open” to mandatory vaccinations requires addressing variables that are not nailed down. Are sufficient supplies of the vaccine available at your worksite locations? Are your vaccination policies in line with your cultural values? (For example, an aggressive, activist culture versus a collaborative culture based on consensus.) Employers have an obligation to maintain a safe and healthy workforce, including infection mitigation procedures, but mandating a vaccine comes with special obligations in terms of liability. And some employees are going to need waivers, due to disabilities and religious beliefs. Know what is permissible under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws.
In December, 2020, the EEOC issued guidance stating employers will be able to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among their workers in certain circumstances without running afoul of key federal anti-discrimination laws. According to the law firm Fisher Phillips, the only scenario described by the EEOC as a permissible basis to mandate vaccination without violating the ADA is when a worker poses a “direct threat” to themselves or others by their physical presence in the workplace without being immunized. Mandating vaccines is only permitted if workers would pose “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”
An alternative is to educate workers about the vaccine, its benefits, and its safety, and to make workers aware of company efforts to get them vaccinated. Uber sent a letter to its drivers and delivery people telling them the company believes they “should be near the front of the line for the vaccine” and that it is focused on ensuring “that if you choose to take the vaccine, you’re able to access it quickly and easily.” Some employers may start to consider incentives, such as vacation time or gift cards, for workers to get vaccinated.
4 Anticipate an OSHA COVID-19 emergency temporary standard
If OSHA develops a COVID-19 ETS, which president Biden supports, it could draw on its bloodborne pathogens standard for healthcare workers. If so, an ETS could require employers to:
- Offer covid-19 vaccines to occupationally exposed workers
- Train workers about the vaccination including efficacy, safety, method of administration, and the benefits of vaccination;
- Offer the vaccine at no cost to employees;
- Offer the vaccine shortly after training and before additional exposure;
- Obtain written opinion from a healthcare provider concerning an employee’s fitness to receive a vaccine;
- Address antibodies in employees who have recently recovered from confirmed cases of COVID-19; and
- Require employees who refuse vaccines to sign a specific declination form to encourage participation, assuming that employees may refuse vaccines in certain contexts.
5 Expect resistance
A Texas A&M-led survey found that more than 31 percent of 5,009 Americans queried between May 28 and June 8 of last year did not intend to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The research, which appears in the journal Social Science & Medicine, found that Black people, women, and those with conservative leanings were most likely to refuse vaccination.
In the study, both female and Black respondents listed concerns about safety and efficacy as reasons for their vaccine hesitancy. The relatively fast pace of the COVID-19 vaccine development may have created some mistrust, the study’s authors hypothesize.
More conservative respondents were more likely to refuse the vaccine, according to the researchers. The study’s authors point out that respondents with conservative leanings were found to be less trusting of scientists and medical experts in an earlier study.
Researchers found that wealthier Americans and individuals who trust in experts were more likely to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
The study reinforces the need to develop effective health promotion efforts to reduce the number of people refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. One public health official said a “Smokey the Bear”-type of high-visibility campaign is needed.
6 Expect questions
Your employees have been inundated with information, often technical and complex, about COVID-19 vaccines.
Your policy-setting and communication efforts, if to be effective in engaging and earning the trust of your workforce, must be ready to answer questions such as these:
How do vaccines protect against viruses?
Why do I need to have a second dose?
What types of side-effects could I experience after a COVID-19 vaccine?
How long after the vaccine will I develop immunity, and how long will it last?
Will I still need to wear a mask and social distance after I am vaccinated?
I have already had COVID-19, do I need to get the vaccine?
Should I still get the flu shot?
Will it be safe for me to gather with friends and family again?
When will COVID-19 end?
Visit the CDC’s “Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 Vaccination” for answers to these and other common queries at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/faq.html.
CDC also has information for puncturing common vaccine myths available at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/facts.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fvaccines%2Fvaccine-benefits%2Ffacts.html.
Regularly check the CDC’s site https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations.html for updates on its recommendations to federal, state and local governments about groups to be included in the various phases of the vaccination rollout.