Three Essential Employer Questions Answered on COVID-19 Vaccination

Michelle Hopkins

As an employer, you are ready to move beyond COVID-19 and get business back to normal – even if it’s a “new normal,” as many consultants suggest.1,2,3,4,5 You’re seeking answers to three essential questions – and this article will address them. They are:

  • What approach is optimal for vaccinating your workforce?
  • When can we remove masks, feel safe, and get back to normal?
  • Why is all this taking so long?

What approach is optimal for vaccinating your workforce?

There are a number of considerations to evaluate but essentially you have two choices:

  • Conduct an episodic on-site event to vaccinate employees at the worksite. This can be done either by partnering with a health care provider or by having your own medical personnel administer the vaccinations. Administering the vaccine requires applying to the state health department for eligibility. There are several other important considerations for an on-site event, which will be covered later.
  • Send your employees into the community to get vaccinated. As the employer, you will find this option easier but potentially less effective in getting a large percentage of your workforce vaccinated in a short amount of time. Also, this option may mean more time away from work for employees who need to wait in long lines at community vaccination sites.

So let’s return to the option of an on-site vaccination event. Besides obtaining state eligibility to administer the vaccine (necessary in every state of your business operations), what are the other considerations?

Transporting and storing the vaccine according to manufacturers’ guidelines is critical. The first two vaccines authorized in the United States (Moderna and Pfizer) are both transported at cold temperatures and must be handled carefully to ensure the vaccine is not damaged.6,7 The Pfizer vaccine requires especially cold temperatures and that means you need special, industrial freezers that are not widely available. Even with the Moderna vaccine, you need to obtain freezers and, as might be expected, those are in high demand currently. In addition, other needed supplies dry ice (Pfizer only), specialized temperature monitor gauges, syringes, masks, gloves and, of course, the trained medical personnel to give the shots, keep records, and provide vital information to the employees receiving the vaccine. (The Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which became the third vaccine authorized for emergency use in the United States in late February 2021, is a single shot and has less stringent storage and handling requirements.)

In addition, employers would need a dedicated workspace for vaccine administration large enough to accommodate social distancing during sign-in, vaccine administration, and post-vaccination observation. It is also recommended that employers schedule vaccination events so that only a portion of one department or employees of the same job description receive the vaccine on the same day, just in case they experience side effects that make it impossible to work for a few days.

Create a COVID-19 vaccination policy

Once you decide on a workforce vaccination approach, you need to communicate your decision and plan to your employees through development and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccination policy. Among the major points your vaccination policy should address are:

  • Whether vaccination is mandatory or voluntary
  • Any incentives offered to employees who get vaccinated
  • Your company policy regarding COVID-related time away from work if there are side effects
  • Assurance that employees are legally protected from any repercussions if they refuse the vaccine
  • Availability or limitations of accommodations for employees who may decline the vaccine

When can you remove masks, feel safe, and get back to normal?

“A study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation showed only 52 percent of Americans are willing to get the vaccine.8 But, to reach adequate levels of immunity in the population, or what we call herd immunity, it is projected that we need around 80 percent of Americans to get vaccinated. So, we have some work to do,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wainstein, vice president of medical operations, in the Concentra webinar, “What Employers Need to Know About COVID-19 Vaccine Administration,” on February 10.9,10

Until a threshold of about 80 percent is reached, employers should continue these eight workplace practices to guard against infection:

  • Social distancing
  • Masking
  • Hand hygiene
  • Symptom screening
  • Ventilation
  • Cleaning and disinfecting spaces
  • Encourage staying at home when ill
  • Limiting groups’ size and exposure time

Why is all this taking so long?

“The first dose of vaccine was given on December 14, 2020. As of February 10, 2021, about 9.9 percent of the population had received one dose and about three percent had received both doses for full immunization,” said Dr. Wainstein. “A logistics leader described the challenge succinctly when he called COVID-19 vaccination distribution ‘the largest product launch in the history of mankind.’”

Indeed, the logistics of vaccine distribution defy the norms of everyday life. The Poole College of Management used computer modeling to demonstrate the enormity of potential supply chain bottlenecks.11 Six that are seen as the most daunting are:

  • Supply chain personnel shortages. COVID-19 outbreaks in these businesses could shut down the entire supply chain.
  • Lack of coordination. Each state and some local jurisdictions have set up different rules for who gets the vaccine first and how the vaccines are going to be distributed.
  • Potential materials shortages. Shortages can affect other critical supplies needed for the vaccination effort, such as glass vials, rubber stoppers for vials, alcohol wipes, syringes, needles, masks, and gloves.
  • Limited fill-finish capacity or the ability to take the liquid vaccine and put it into vials that can be distributed. Each vial carries a limited number of doses.
  • Vaccine handling requirements and potential damage to the vaccine. The vaccines need freezer temperatures during transportation and storage, so refrigerator and freezer trucks are needed for movement of the vaccines, and these aren’t in huge supply.
  • Rural areas, where there already is limited access to health care, can be difficult to reach with the vaccine.

One factor that concerns Dr. Wainstein and other medical experts and should concern employers, too, is misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Misinformation may be the most stubborn roadblock to reaching an 80 percent vaccination threshold because it can persist even when all goes well with every link in the supply chain.

“Employers have an opportunity (with COVID-19 vaccine administration) to effectively communicate to your employees your concern for their health and safety and to dispel the myths around COVID-19 vaccine administration,” he said.

As a first step, however, here are brief answers to five questions employees often ask:

Will the COVID-19 vaccine give me COVID-19?
No. Neither COVID-19 vaccine contains the live virus. Remember, though, it takes one to two weeks after vaccination for your immunity to reach maximum protection levels.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?
The vaccines have been shown to meet rigorous safety criteria based on data from the manufacturers and large clinical trials.

Which is stronger: immunity from having COVID-19 or from a COVID-19 vaccine?
Natural immunity varies by disease and from person to person. On the other hand, scientists still don’t know how long COVID-19 vaccination protection will last with the vaccines and whether it will be effective against the newer virus variants that have emerged.

What are the ingredients in the vaccine(s)?
You can find the full list here: Johnson and Johnson vaccine, Moderna vaccine, Pfizer vaccine.

When can I get a COVID-19 vaccination?
Each state has its own plan. Consult your state health department.

Official sources have made materials available to help employers communicate the facts about COVID-19 vaccination. You can find several of these, including the link to a CDC toolkit, at the end of the Concentra webinar.

A final challenge: manufacturing mRNA vaccines

A final reason for a long lead time in getting 80 percent of the public vaccinated is the production time required, especially for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Both are messenger RNA vaccines that protect against infectious diseases by teaching cells of the body to make a harmless “spike protein.” This protein triggers an immune response and causes antibodies to be produced for protection.12

A year ago few people outside of a small network of scientists and companies had ever heard of mRNA immunizations. Now the world knows about them but, until now, there have been no facilities in the world that have manufactured mRNA vaccines on such a large scale, says a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine.13 As the nation and the world scale up to meet the challenge, business leaders can take comfort in knowing that occupational health experts are gaining and sharing valuable new knowledge every day.

Returning to the workplace after COVID-19: What boards should be thinking about. PwC. 
Should Employers Make the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory? Knowledge@Wharton. Wharton University of Pennsylvania. December 21, 2020.   
The Next Normal: How companies and leaders can reset for growth beyond coronavirus. McKinsey and Company.   
When will the COVID-19 pandemic end? McKinsey and Company. January 20, 2021.   
Thriving in the “new” normal. Deloitte. June 2020.   
Fact Sheet for Health Care Providers Administering Vaccine: the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. December 20, 2020.   
Fact Sheet for Health Care Providers Administering Vaccine: the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. January 2021.     
Only 52 percent of Americans are willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, study says. CBS News-Wilwaukee. January 21, 2021. 
80 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity: statement by Dr. Anthony Fauci. CNBC. December 16, 2020. 
10 What Employers Need to Know About COVID-19 Vaccine Administration. Dr. Jeffrey Wainstein. Concentra. February 10, 2021.   
11 The COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Chain: Potential Problems and Bottlenecks. Poole College of Management, North Carolina State University. January 5, 2021. 
12 Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 18, 2021. 
13 New COVID Vaccines Need Absurd Amounts of Material and Labor. Scientific American. January 4, 2021.