The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is off to a rocky start. Demand is very high, and supply is low and unpredictable. Some states are reporting that they don’t know when or how many doses of the vaccines they’ll receive, so they’re scrambling to fill appointments and use their doses efficiently. Others are ready to run mass vaccination clinics, but aren’t getting enough doses to meet residents’ needs. Florida is now cracking down on “vaccine tourism,” which had previously allowed those over age 65 to get the vaccine regardless of their residency status in the state.
While the distribution efforts have been disorganized and confusing, many self-insured employers and public health officials are worried about another challenge with the COVID-19 vaccine: vaccine hesitancy. According to a recent presentation released by the CDC for health systems, only 58% of the general public said they would be willing to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The Kaiser Family Foundation found slightly better vaccine acceptance rates. They reported that 71% of Americans said they would take the vaccine, though some groups are more hesitant than others:
“About a quarter (27%) of the public remains vaccine hesitant, saying they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were available for free and deemed safe by scientists. Vaccine hesitancy is highest among Republicans (42%), those ages 30-49 (36%), and rural residents (35%). Importantly, 35% of Black adults (a group that has borne a disproportionate burden of the pandemic) say they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated, as do one third of those who say they have been deemed essential workers (33%) and three in ten (29%) of those who work in a health care delivery setting.”
Self-insured employers and benefits advisors feel a responsibility to improve the health and well-being of their member populations. Our recent research study revealed that it’s a top priority for HR and Benefits professionals at every level of their organizations. Many of them are taking an active role in helping employees and their families understand the COVID-19 vaccines, educate them on its safety and efficacy, and provide the information they need to access the vaccine. Here are some ways they’re helping.
As KFF resported, black Americans are hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The burden of historical abuses by the medical community is likely the reason for this caution. Black Americans have been used as unwitting test subjects in medical research, the most infamous of which is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. This legacy has left many in the black community skeptical and unwilling to take vaccines or participate in medical research.
The National Medical Association, a professional association of black doctors, is trying to change this. As reported by Stat, the NMA took raw data from the vaccine trials to conduct their own vetting process alongside the FDA. They independently verified the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna. Members of the NMA are conducting town halls and webinars organized with the help of black churches, universities, fraternities, sororities, and other community groups. They’re taking honest, open questions from the public and helping to assure them of the safety of these vaccines.
One organizer notes that their efforts most likely to work when trust and familiarity are part of the outreach:
“When we look at all these online strategies — campaigns on social media, a chatbot — we don’t really know yet what is really effective,” said Ève Dubé, a senior researcher at the Québec National Institute of Public Health, and an invited professor of anthropology at Laval University. Because our opinions are often influenced more by our relationships than official public service announcements, to her, it’s best if the message is local, community-specific — even if that’s more expensive and time-consuming. “When it’s someone you know, your doctor, your nurse, your neighbor, your priest, we know that that’s what’s the most effective,” she said.”
This same lesson applies to employers who are addressing vaccine hesitancy and member education.
The fast rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has led to concerns and misinformation among many groups, including healthcare workers. Yale New Haven Health System, which employs over 26,000 people, conducted an employee survey to gauge vaccine hesitancy. Over 200 people expressed concern about the long-term effects of the shots, and 75 said nothing would make them feel comfortable enough to take the vaccine. The survey also found that those working as physicians were more likely to have scheduled their vaccine appointments (75%) compared to those working in other hospital roles like food service, transportation, or cleaning staff.
Once they received this data on the reasoning behind vaccine hesitancy, YNHHS began planning a communication campaign to help ease employees’ fears and provide accurate information on the COVID-19 vaccines. They are considering a few strategies:
Considering the potential risks and costs for employees who may contract COVID-19, hospital systems are even more motivated to convince their populations to get vaccinated.
If you’re like most of us in the employee benefits space, you’ve clicked on more than a few articles about whether or not employers can or should mandate COVID-19 vaccination. While most legal experts agree that vaccination can indeed be a requirement for workers, many benefits experts argue that incentives and encouragement are better strategies for employee engagement.
Dollar General is taking a different approach to fighting vaccine hesitancy. Their team of retail front-line workers numbers nearly 150,000, and these employees work at over 16,000 stores nationwide. The majority of their employees work day in and day out with the public, so the company has a clear responsibility to keep workers safe from infection. Their COVID-19 response page details some of the strategies they’re using to protect not only shoppers, but also their employees.
Instead of requiring the vaccine, Dollar General is offering flexibility and incentives to employees. Here’s what they’re doing:
“We do not have an on-site pharmacy and currently do not have systems in place for employees to receive a vaccine at their work site. We do not want our employees to have to choose between receiving a vaccine or coming to work, so we are working to remove barriers (e.g., travel time, mileage, child care needs, etc.) by providing frontline hourly team members with a one-time payment equivalent of four (4) hours of regular pay after receiving a completed COVID-19 vaccination and salaried team members with additional store labor hours to accommodate their time away from the store. We’re also working with our distribution and transportation teams to make similar accommodations for those teams.”
These types of incentives may become popular with other employers as vaccines roll out around the country. Some may choose to compensate employees for the time off they need to get vaccinated, provide health premium discounts or bonus payments, or even hold vaccination events at on-site clinics for employees and families (pending future vaccine supplies not directed to state and local governments).