COVID-19 Vaccines: What Employers Need to Know
After a year of crisis, 2020 has ended with a rare piece of good news: Healthcare systems in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere have begun distributing vaccines for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). As the first groups of healthcare workers and vulnerable patients get inoculated, the promise of protection from the disease also raises expectations of eventually being able to move past COVID-19 in business and in life.
The vaccines were developed and approved for emergency use in record time. Now the task shifts to manufacturing a sufficient number of doses, distributing the vaccines and encouraging the public to get inoculated. The process will take time, with many countries prioritizing certain groups of people — such as front-line healthcare workers and the elderly — before working through the rest of the population.
“This is going to be a massive effort. We have never vaccinated at the magnitude required here for a significant pandemic before in the U.S. or globally,” says Gisele Norris, managing director for the Healthcare practice and co-leader of the Global COVID-19 Task Force at Aon. “It will require a tremendous amount of coordination. And, of course, there will also be a lot of communication required. There is a degree of fear around taking the vaccine among the general public, and people are skeptical about whether or not it is safe and effective. If people refuse to take the vaccine, efforts will be in vain.”
Alongside government information campaigns, employers can also play a significant role in educating employees about the vaccine and encouraging them to take it and, in so doing, helping to bring the pandemic to a close.
As vaccines begin to be rolled out, uncertainties remain over practical issues, such as the pace of production and distribution, and medical issues, such as the nature of the immunity they will provide. There’s also the issue of encouraging people to get vaccinated.
“It hasn’t yet been established whether or not these vaccines for COVID-19 provide what’s called sterilizing immunity, meaning they would greatly reduce your symptoms if you were exposed to the virus, but you may still be able to transmit it,” says Neal Mills, chief medical officer at Aon. “People need to understand that you can’t have magical thinking. There are a lot of unknowns around this, but we know that even as vaccination efforts ramp up, masks, hand-washing, social distancing and testing measures will remain important to reduce the spread.”
Employers are well positioned to share those kinds of considerations with their employees, as a trusted source, Mills says. “Otherwise, we’re going to rely on social media, where there is misinformation,” he says.
A Leading Role in Encouraging Vaccination
Employers can also take the lead in encouraging vaccinations through efforts like information campaigns.
“That sort of campaign can be used to share facts about vaccines’ efficacy. It can also let employees know what to expect within the first 24 hours after you’re vaccinated, which might include symptoms like a sore shoulder, chills, fever — and to give people confidence to go back for the second required dose, since at least the first two vaccines approved for emergency use require a two-dose regimen to be effective,” says Mills. “Campaigns in which employers take up a leadership position and support their employees should be a serious consideration.”
Such programs have the added benefit of putting the employer in a community leadership role, says Norris, and can have a direct impact on the capacity of local hospitals and intensive care units.
A Dynamic Environment
The vaccine situation is likely to be a fluid one in the months ahead, so employers need to keep abreast of developments with approvals, availability and local guidelines. Nancy Green, executive vice president and co-leader of Aon’s Global COVID-19 Task Force, says this is particularly true for multinational companies.
“COVID-19 vaccines are purchased by national governments through Operation Warp Speed for the U.S., and COVAX Facility on behalf of its 184 participating countries. Some countries are purchasing through bilateral agreements negotiated directly between the country’s government and vaccine developers and manufacturers,” says Green. “As such, vaccine doses are pre-committed through these contracts, vaccine distribution parameters are controlled by national governments, and, in many countries, there may be further involvement of, and potential customization by, local government and public health resources.
“This means that a multinational must understand and keep up with changes in the local vaccine climate in each of the countries where it does business, including possible vaccination requirements and differing liability issues. This can be a complex challenge for many employers, but particularly so for multinationals.”
“It’s incumbent upon the employer or the corporation to make sure that it’s staying abreast of this very dynamic field, and what the issues are around the licensing and approval of specific vaccines,” concurs Mills.
As vaccine distribution begins, employers should be thinking ahead about possible issues and the decisions they’ll face. “Begin preparing now: Make assumptions about when the vaccines will be available and start determining what the knowns and the unknowns are,” Mills says. “Prepare your communications processes now so you’ll be ready to act as soon as vaccines become more widely available.”
For more information about planning for the COVID-19 vaccine, browse Aon’s COVID-19 Insights & Resources site, or read Aon’s Employer Considerations and FAQs and the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Update.
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