While there has been a lot of positive news recently about the COVID vaccines, there are varying reports on the public’s concern and willingness to take it. That hesitation, along with vaccine access, will determine how quickly life returns to normal. We will need more than 70% of the population vaccinated to get back to a pre-pandemic society, and employers can make a significant difference in helping achieve that. By enabling employee access to vaccines, employers can help end this pandemic more quickly.
This will not be easy. Limited vaccine supplies and distribution challenges will make the vaccine difficult for many people to access initially. And employees will have questions about whether or not they should get vaccinated. Therefore, even if a company is not in the healthcare space, it will likely need a strategy to deal with issues related to the COVID vaccines for its employees. Business leaders should look at this moment as an opportunity to play an important role in what will be considered one of history’s largest and most rapid inoculation efforts.
I routinely advise Fortune 500 companies and help them think through pandemic planning and vaccine rollout. For many of these businesses, healthcare strategy is now synonymous with business strategy. A little preparation will go a long way and may make all the difference for your company and your employees.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently said that employers will be allowed to mandate vaccination or require documentation of vaccination in certain situations. Determine what your company will decide to do regarding vaccine mandates. Even if you choose to avoid mandates, think through how you will support your employees’ access to vaccines. Will you offer navigation services to help them make appointments? Will you have partnerships with local pharmacies or mobile nursing services that come to worksites or homes? Will you potentially offer vaccines at your employee health clinic? Deciding on policies now can help you avoid confusion when the vaccine is available to your employee.
Pay attention to federal, state and local health department announcements regarding vaccine distribution timing. The government will likely designate early allotment to essential workers. Do you have any employees who meet the essential worker criteria as defined by your state health officials? In addition, the government will likely prioritize workers at higher risk for COVID due to age or underlying conditions. Will you facilitate their ability to receive vaccines? If so, decide how you will communicate this. Furthermore, consider whether you will require vaccination documentation from employees to demonstrate proof of inoculation. These are just a few of many questions to think through and address. Your legal and/or HR teams should be part of this decision-making process early on to help you understand all the implications of your proposed policies.
The exact plans for vaccine distribution among the general public are not yet clear, and may vary by state (in some places, even by county). Depending on the makeup of your workforce, you may have a few weeks to months before your employees become eligible for a vaccine. What triggers should you look for to know when to begin various phases of your plan? Situational awareness will be key. If possible, designate teams who can monitor state and local vaccine plans and policies in each of your work locations. Additionally, continue to stay abreast of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance.
Employers have long played a role in promoting messages about the importance of getting the flu shot. Some even provide incentives to do so. The COVID-19 vaccines should be no different. Whether or not you decide to facilitate access to vaccines, think throughwhyhaving a vaccinated population is good for your business and your employees and how you will communicate that. Is your priority to create a safe work environment? To protect high-risk employees? To create a place where clients and customers feel safe? All of the above?
Articulating your “why” clearly and transparently will be important for building and maintaining employee trust and will enable you to more successfully implement your vaccine strategy. Sharing information about efficacy and safety data, or providing ready access to clinical experts who can help employees navigate their healthcare questions, will help alleviate employee confusion. And don’t forget — it is still important to also encourage employees to get their flu shot.
Having access to trusted clinical guidance and decision-making support will be critical to assist employees with vaccine-related questions. For employers that do not have this capability in-house, or for employees who may lack a primary care provider, consider engaging a clinical consultant for employee question and answer sessions or bringing on a virtual clinical partner with 24/7 support.
Returning to normal — i.e., the pre-COVID business operations and life that we all long for — will require as many people as possible to become vaccinated. Any level of assistance that you can provide to your employees (and their household members or covered beneficiaries) will be helpful for achieving this objective. This can range from actually facilitating the vaccination process to providing resources that will help your employees stay informed, get the vaccine and protect themselves and their family members, especially those at high risk for COVID. As trusted entities and providers of health-related benefits, employers have an opportunity to be real change agents to help keep our country informed, healthy and safe.