Supporting COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts: Advice for Employers

An article by Willis Towers Watson discusses how employers are supporting their respective workforce amid the pandemic, with education of approved vaccines and effective communication channels with state and local health departments referenced as key actions to be taken at this time.

As employees continue to grapple with the fragmented rollout of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines nationwide, an article by Willis Towers Watson (WTW) discusses actions that employers can currently take to support their respective workforce amid the pandemic.

Authored by Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD, Population Health Leader and Health Management Practice Co-Leader, Health and Benefits, WTW North America, and Chantel Sell Reagen, Director, National Pharmacy Community Clinical Leader, WTW North America, they note that as COVID-19 and the emerging threat of more contagious variants spread in US communities, public health measures such as mask wearing and better ventilation and barriers in the workplace should be implemented if remote work is not possible.

“COVID-19 modeling projections show that continuing public health measures will remain important ways of preventing illness and death until summer or later,” said the authors.

However, as people wait for their turn to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, there are still additional efforts that employers can do to support their workforce, particularly educating employees on available vaccines and ensuring they are up-to-date on all the latest news regarding distribution at the state-level.

Although a growing share of the public is open to getting vaccinated, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, 31% of Americans noted that they will wait and see how it’s working before seeking vaccination. With Black adults (43%) and Hispanic adults (37%) more likely to hesitate, education provided by employers may assist in reducing vaccine hesitancy among these at-risk populations.

In an email exchange with The American Journal of Managed Care®, Levin-Scherz further discusses efforts employers are taking to educate and help vaccinate their workforce when the time comes, as well as why he recommends against employers incentivizing or mandating vaccines.

AJMC®: As COVID-19 vaccine distribution continues to be fragmented at the state level, can you speak about actions employers are taking to secure doses and cover the cost of these vaccines? And how are employers keeping employees updated amid this process?

Levin-Scherz: Employers are covering vaccine administration fees in both pharmacy and medical benefits. Many are arranging for flexibility in scheduling to allow employees to get vaccinated, and some are paying hourly employees for 2-4 hours to allow them to get vaccinated without losing income.

Right now, there is a relative shortage of vaccines, and few states have enough vaccine to give supplies to employers to administer. Many employers are getting ready to offer vaccines on site as the vaccine supply expands, although many also have large portions of their workforce remote, which decreases the value of on-site delivery.

Employers are communicating the importance of vaccination to their employees, and they give regular updates through multiple modalities, including emails, newsletters, and town halls.

AJMC®: As mandating vaccines across the workforce can be a tricky issue, how are employers either incentivizing employees or accommodating those who may opt out of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine due to vaccine hesitancy or religious beliefs?

Levin-Scherz: Many employers are providing a modest amount of pay to lower wage workers so that they will not suffer income loss when they get the vaccine. We haven't seen many employers use large incentives–which I think is good. It's demotivating to have an incentive that is unachievable, since the vaccine is not available to all employees at this time. I also worry that a large incentive could inadvertently signal that there was a risk in getting the vaccine.

The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] has made it clear that employers can mandate the vaccine if that would help make the workplace safe, but they must consider medical and religious objections. We see a very small portion of employers announcing mandates at this point.

I worry that a premature mandate will force uncertain people to declare their opposition to the vaccine, and I'd rather let them wait and make their decision later as they see friends, families, and coworkers benefiting from the vaccines. Also, mandating vaccines in high-risk workplaces like nursing homes, hospitals, and food processing plants will be far less controversial in the future when people are likely to need to be vaccinated to board a plane or go to a sports venue.

AJMC®: Any other thoughts?

Levin-Scherz: Many have asked me whether vaccination will allow remote employees to return to work. Vaccinations are key to dramatically decreasing community transmission, and we can return from remote work when there is little community spread of COVID-19. That's why it's so important to promote vaccines for all–not just for selected groups of workers. An employer cannot assume that it's "safe" for vaccinated remote workers to return to the workplace if the rate of COVID-19 community transmission remains high.