Why Should We Care that Covid Vaccination Rates are Slowing Down across the US?
US health officials fear the chance of achieving herd immunity against coronavirus is slipping away.
The problem is no longer a lack of available vaccines but fewer people coming forward to be inoculated.
Why should we be concerned about this?
There are several key points to consider.
Herd immunity occurs when upwards of around 75% to 95%* of the population gain immunity to an infectious disease – either by contracting it and developing antibodies to it or receiving a vaccine. The scenario makes it very difficult for a communicable disease, such as coronavirus, to replicate, thus bringing an end to the outbreak.
*The actual percentage varies from disease to disease; since coronavirus is novel e.g. new, we don’t know the exact answer yet, but many epidemiologists think a safer number would 85% or higher.
If we don’t eradicate coronavirus from the population, what are we giving up?
First and foremost, non-vaccinated people can help spread the virus, and an active infectious disease that continues to circulate can genetically mutate over time – resulting in either a more virulent (e.g. dangerous) or a more contagious variant, such as the one that originated in India and is now rapidly spreading within the UK.
Epidemiologists believe that unless the coronavirus is eradicated worldwide, there is a small but frightening chance that a dangerous new version of coronavirus could emerge that would render our existing vaccines incapable of protecting people.
In this doomsday scenario, all the sacrifices everyone has made during lockdown would be for naught – and we’d be facing another one to two years of pandemic while Pharma companies rush to develop next-generation vaccines.
The second concern is that herd immunity helps protect those who, due to medical conditions, cannot be vaccinated (such as the very young) or for whom vaccinations are less effective. For example, recent research indicates that those with certain health conditions may not be able to create as many antibodies as those with healthy immune systems. Individuals in these categories would be better protected from disease once we achieve herd immunity.
Different Communities, Different Vaccination Rates
Let’s shift gears now and talk about what managers need to consider when encouraging employees to get Covid vaccinations at work.
The first point is that employers should not assume that everyone feels the same about getting vaccinated.
Indeed, public opinion surveys point to long-standing differences among different ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and politically affiliated groups.
For example, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials were able to trace unexpected outbreaks of childhood measles back to school districts where a significant percentage of parents have gotten waivers to exempt their children from receiving MMR vaccines that protect against measles.
Upon investigation, public health officials discovered there were two different communities involved:
The first was conservative Jewish (Hassidic) communities, primarily in the greater New York area, that did not want to vaccinate their children for religious reasons.
The second group was found primarily in upper-middle-class communities, in places like Austin and the West Coast. Many of these parents actively campaigned as “anti-vaxxers,” promoting the widely debunked theory that vaccines can cause autism or other health issues.
Given this history of vaccine hesitancy, public health officials have been actively using polling organizations to identify and quantify the level of concerns about Covid vaccines among different ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups.
For example, polls conducted earlier this year found that 63% of white Americans say they are interested in taking the Covid 19 vaccine, while only 49% of black Americans feel the same way. Fortunately, this number is improving in recent days, according to Kaiser Health News.
What’s the reason for this disparity? Especially considering that statistically, black Americans have been hit harder by the coronavirus in terms of infection rates and mortality.
Public health historians point to long-standing distrust among black communities toward US government health programs, in particular, the deceptive, dishonest, and destructive Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted by the United States Public Health Service and the CDC over a 40-year period in the middle of the last century.
Hispanics are another ethnic group that has been especially hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. At the beginning of the year, public health officials were very discouraged by the low number of Hispanic survey respondents who wanted to get a Covid 19 vaccine. However, a more recent survey shows a dramatic uptick in positive territory for Hispanic respondents.
Another group of great concern is long-term caretakers. A recent PEW Trust poll found that only around half of these frontline workers have been vaccinated.
Finally, unlike most previous disease outbreaks, coronavirus has taken on a distinctly political aspect, with many politically conservative people voicing strong opinions against wearing masks, for example. Public health surveys continue to find a high percentage of conservative Republicans, especially men, are resistant to the idea of getting the coronavirus vaccine, with 4 out of 10 Republicans saying they do not plan to get a vaccine according to the latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.
What are Some Common Reasons for Vaccine Hesitancy?
Public health officials have also tried to identify specific reasons for what they call “vaccine hesitancy” among different individuals.
The results are quite fascinating.
It turns out that quite a few objections are fairly reasonable and can be overcome fairly easily.
We’ll look at this category first and address the set of more difficult objections in the next section below.
So what are some of the more common objections to getting the coronavirus vaccine?
Researchers have found that many respondents give one or more of these answers:
- I’m too busy to get the vaccine.
- It’s complicated to sign up, and it will take all day. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.
- Getting two shots is very inconvenient.
- The vaccines were developed far too quickly. I’d rather wait and see what side effects emerge.
- I don’t have a doctor or medical insurance to pay for this.
- They are getting rid of the mask rules in my state, so I think this pandemic is on the way out.
- I’m old enough to remember problems with polio vaccines and infants with thalidomide birth defects.
- With Covid death rates going down, why should I bother?
Overcoming these objections is not easy but possible, making this group part of what public health officials would call the “persuadable” group.
What about the Views of Covid Anti-Vaxxers?
In contrast to the “persuadable” group, there are other groups of individuals that are adamantly against taking the Covid vaccine, a group commonly known as Covid Anti-Vaxxers.
Researchers have identified some of the following strongly held beliefs among this group – beliefs and arguments that you may have heard as well:
- The coronavirus pandemic is a hoax.
- The coronavirus pandemic was a planned government attack (e.g. “plandemic”)
- Coronavirus vaccine programs are an attack on our civil rights, e.g. a bid for government control.
- The coronavirus vaccine will insert a microchip into your body.
Researchers conducting focus groups also found that some members of this group were open to the idea of using fake vaccination certificates if they were required to show proof of vaccination in order to continue working at their place of employment, fly on a passenger airplane, or take a vacation on a cruise ship.
How widely held are these views? One piece of anecdotal evidence is a report we received from an executive at a Michigan-based automotive parts manufacturing company who says that as many as 50% of their factory workers believe that Bill Gates has designed a chip that gets inserted into the body whenever anyone gets a Covid vaccine.
Overcoming Vaccine Objections: Covid Vaccine Advertising Campaigns by Public Health Agencies and Corporate Advocacy Groups
As you might surmise, public health officials are conducting focus groups to find the best messages to help persuade the persuadables to get a Covid vaccine and hopefully blunt some of the more conspiratorial messages propagated by the Covid Anti-Vaxxer community.
Focus groups have been used extensively to help refine these messages.
Key points that managers should beware of:
- Pointing out evidence from experts that are not respected by other people can be counterproductive.
- Arguments that make fun of other’s opinions or point out the hypocrisy in other people’s arguments are counterproductive.
This means that, for example, posts on Facebook or other social media platform that “call out” those who have not received the vaccine are not helpful and can produce the opposite results.
What does work?
Researchers have found that some messages are more effective than others at persuading people to get the vaccine:
- An endorsement from a trusted member of the community, such as a personal doctor, teacher, priest, or minister, is the most effective.
- Communicating that taking the vaccine can help protect family members or other vulnerable members of the community and/or help revive the economy quicker by helping people get back to work.
- Showing that getting Covid can still be dangerous, especially “long-Covid” cases, in which patients have debilitating effects that can linger for months or years.
The Biden administration has announced a major national ad campaign designed to combat vaccine hesitancy, with the tagline “We Can Do This.”
One of a series of new Covid vaccine public service announcements from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Ways to Encourage Covid Vaccination in the Workplace
What specific actions can managers undertake to encourage Covid vaccinations among their employees?
Broadly speaking, we can break this down into three categories: influence campaigns, incentive programs, and mandatory rules.
Many companies have conducted annual flu vaccination drives over the years to help increase flu vaccination rates among employees, which can significantly reduce the number sick days and help drive down healthcare costs.
By having an on-site Covid vaccination drive, you can also overcome some common vaccine objections, such as concerns over the inconvenience of getting an appointment or the worry about taking time off from work and not getting paid.
But, before dusting off the old flu vaccination plans, consider using some of the messaging techniques described above.
For example, it might be useful to bring in a trusted authority figure to speak with your employees about the importance of getting the Covid vaccine and how it can help protect other members of their family – as well as elderly people or those who are immuno-compromised.
Another idea is to solicit employees to participate as volunteers in vaccine programs within the community at large. This approach could help establish credibility among volunteers who could serve as informal ambassadors to employees who have misgivings about getting vaccinated.
Incentive programs are another approach that employers and government agencies are using to increase vaccination rates.
Let’s be frank, incentives, in this case, are really just bribes by another name; and they fall into a couple of categories.
The first is a financial bribe.
Some employers are paying workers a spot bonus of $50 or $100 when they get the coronavirus vaccine.
The state government of Ohio is using this approach as well by creating a special lottery campaign that will award $1 million-dollar prizes to five lucky vaccinated individuals in an effort to drive up vaccination rates among Ohioans.
Another common incentive program has centered around mask policies on the job.
The CDC recently announced that those who have been vaccinated need not wear masks indoors (while those who have not been vaccinated should continue to do so). In response, many companies (including Formaspace) have made mask wearing optional for those who have been vaccinated.
However, given that many states have already (or will soon) eliminate their mask requirements, the workability of an incentive program for not wearing masks at work (in exchange for getting a vaccine) may become untenable – given the changing attitudes toward masks in general, and the reality that most states have already eliminated their mask requirements, and that the big holdout, California, is scheduled to do so on June 15.
Some companies have established policies that make it mandatory for their employees to get vaccinated against Covid 19.
One of the first major employers to do so was Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. Hospital executives announced that being vaccinated was part of their overall health mission, and they gave employees time to get the vaccine, and those who elected not to do so were eventually terminated.
Delta Airlines is another prominent company that has announced that any new hires joining the Delta team must have a Covid vaccination.
Given the broad contact that hospital workers and airline employees have with the public, it’s easy to understand why these organizations elected to have mandatory vaccine requirements.
Formaspace, on the other hand, like most organizations in the US, does not have a mandatory vaccination policy.
Avoid HIPAA Violations When Asking Employees about their Vaccination Status
One of the most common HR questions right now is whether an employer can legally ask one of their workers whether they have had a Covid vaccination or not without violating the HIPAA healthcare privacy act.
This is a tricky legal area.
According to the legal website JD Supra, asking an employee whether they’ve been vaccinated or asking them to show proof of a Covid vaccination by itself does not violate HIPAA regulations.
However, there are caveats.
Employers should ask their workers to blank out any protected healthcare information (PHI) that might appear on a vaccination certificate, lest the company officials see something they should not know about.
And it’s important to avoid asking any follow-up questions, including, “Why didn’t you get a vaccine?” as this could compel the worker to provide that information, which in turn could trigger a HIPAA violation on behalf of the employer.
Encouraging Employee Vaccinations is Part of a Larger Program to Welcome Employees Back to the Office
A few final thoughts on encouraging employees to get vaccinated at work.
It’s important to take a larger, holistic view of the situation.
Many workers who have been working from home (WFH) during the pandemic are being asked to return to the office, either in a full-time capacity or in a hybrid work environment where they spend some days in the office while continuing to work at home the rest of the time.
Don’t underestimate the amount of stress that these changes can have on your workers.
That’s why it’s important to incorporate an employee Covid vaccination program within a larger program designed to welcome workers back to the office.
In other words, you don’t want the first interaction with workers returning to the office to be a memo asking them to come to HR to talk about their Covid vaccination status.
Instead, take the time to survey employee attitudes and expectations and provide reassurance to those who have questions about what working conditions will be like when they return to the office, including any increased safety precautions that you have put in place, such as improved ventilation, new socially distanced desk configurations, etc.
There’s another reason to take a go-slow approach.
Thanks to the effects of the pandemic, employment analysts believe we are on the cusp of a major readjustment – with many employees either considering retirement (if they are in their late 50s or older) or quitting their current job in favor of new employment opportunities – especially in if they don’t like the post-pandemic office changes.
For these reasons and more, it’s important to create a credible transition plan (including programs to encourage Covid vaccinations) that provide reassurance that you understand their concerns about returning to work so that you can retain your most valuable employees.
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