woman receiving a vaccine
With a rolling average of nearly 1.6 million vaccine doses administered nationally each day, more and more Americans are becoming eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. — Getty Images/Geber86

With promising COVID-19 vaccines from companies like Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson now being distributed across the U.S., business owners might want to start thinking about how their operations could change. The vaccines, which were approved for emergency use by the government in December 2020, will likely have far-reaching impacts on both employees and customers, so it’s important to get planning now.

Here are five things your business can do now to prepare for wider distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and how to encourage your staff to protect themselves.

Understand the proposed vaccine distribution plan

With a rolling average of nearly 1.6 million vaccine doses administered nationally each day, more and more Americans are becoming eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. One of the most important things for businesses to start thinking about is how their employees align with the government’s latest recommendations for who should receive the vaccine first.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine working group has recommended three significant groups for the first phase of vaccination:

  • Health care workers and long-term care facility residents.
  • Essential workers including police, fire, rescue, transportation, education, food and agriculture workers.
  • Adults with high-risk medical conditions and adults over the age of 65.

Individual state governments will ultimately decide if the CDC’s recommendations are followed and what groups are prioritized to receive the vaccine first. Business owners can keep a close eye on how these state-based vaccine distribution plans develop further and if their workers fall under any of these categories.

Notably, the category of “essential workers” is broad, and each state may have a different definition of what industries count as essential. For example, Arkansas officials have suggested hard-hit workers in the poultry industry should be included as essential and given the vaccine right after health care workers and long-term care facility residents.

If your workers do not fall into any of these first-phase categories, it’s likely they will receive the vaccine at a much later date. The New York Times, Surgo Foundation and Ariadne Labs created a useful tool that estimates where people will likely fall in the vaccine line based on age, county, and profession.

Make a plan to educate and support employees who are considering the vaccine

Just because vaccines are available doesn’t mean every eligible American will be lining up to receive their doses. Employers have a unique role to play in encouraging widespread vaccination and dispelling any hesitancy among their workforce.

“For us to achieve herd immunity — to confidently turn the corner on this virus and to restore lives and livelihoods across the country — we will have to get the vast majority, if not all Americans who currently state that they're uncertain about vaccination … to get vaccinated,” Tara Azimi, a partner in McKinsey & Company’s healthcare practice, shared at a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation event, The Role of Employers: Promoting COVID-19 Vaccines and Overcoming Hesitancy. “We will have to support them to get vaccinated.”

Based on McKinsey’s analysis, somewhere between 60% to 100% of eligible Americans would need to be vaccinated to reach that herd immunity status, said Azimi, so it’s important for employers to support any employees who are eligible to receive the vaccine.

She noted that successful interventions generally correlate with the “3Cs”: conviction (firmly-held beliefs and opinions), convenience (an easy and frictionless experience) and costlessness (mitigation of direct and indirect costs, or even providing incentives). Azimi recommended the following ways for employers to make it as easy as possible to support worker vaccination:

  • Conviction: Educate employees on the facts, normalize vaccinations and engage relevant influencers like public health leaders to speak to your staff about the vaccine.
  • Convenience: Share practical information about when and where to get the vaccine and offer easy scheduling and/or on-site vaccination for eligible workers.
  • Costlessness: Cover direct costs of vaccination (including transportation), provide paid time off for vaccination and recovery time and offer clear incentives for employee vaccination.

According to Dr. Cheryl Pegus, executive vice president of health and wellness at Walmart, educating employees and providing the proper training is a huge part of Walmart’s push to promote COVID-19 vaccination.

“Walmart has 2.5 million associates, so we're providing some of these testings and now vaccines, but we’re also educating our associates on the road ahead ... what to expect and how to take control and manage that,” said Pegus at the same U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation event. “We've spent time learning about the vaccine. We've spoken directly to the manufacturers of each of the vaccines... to ensure that we have the right knowledge [and] scientific understanding so that we can educate ourselves and ... bring the best knowledge to our associates.”

For us to achieve herd immunity — to confidently turn the corner on this virus and to restore lives and livelihoods across the country — we will have to get the vast majority, if not all Americans who currently state that they're uncertain about vaccination … to get vaccinated.

Tara Azimi, partner, McKinsey & Company

Revise return-to-work plans accordingly

A complicated concern for many companies will be determining if they should mandate or encourage workers to receive the vaccine and then how to treat workers who do and don’t get the vaccine.

Requiring employee vaccination is legal in most U.S. states that have “at-will employment,” with some religious, medical and personal exceptions. However, another tactic that may produce more effective results is to make the vaccine “a norm at work” rather than a mandate. In this case, employers may opt to create specific policies around vaccinated versus unvaccinated employees, such as saying those who have not yet received the vaccine cannot work in-person at the office until they receive the vaccine or the U.S. achieves herd immunity.

Business experts are split on how quickly workers will be expected to return to offices and workspaces once the vaccine is widely available. But each business owner should take into consideration their workforce’s needs, operating costs and whether their business can continue to use remote workers.

Reimagine your offices and workspaces

Positive developments around the vaccine have helped businesses start to imagine what a post-COVID-19 world can look like. Business owners will use this time to start thinking through what real estate is needed, even if all of its workers receive a vaccine. Should the office go back to “normal” at all?

“Although offices have changed in some ways during the past decade, they may need to be entirely rethought and transformed for a post–COVID-19 world,” McKinsey and Company wrote in a June 2020 report. “Organizations could create workspaces specifically designed to support the kinds of interactions that cannot happen remotely. If the primary purpose of an organization’s space is to accommodate specific moments of collaboration rather than individual work, for example, should 80% of the office be devoted to collaboration rooms?”

Extend timelines for social distancing and mask-wearing

Because the timeline on when most of the general public will be vaccinated is unclear as of the end of 2020, this means businesses will not be able to end safety precautions such as social distancing and mask-wearing. Many companies plan to keep current safety measures in place until at least the end of 2021.

“I think that we’re going to have some degree of public health measures together with the vaccine for a considerable period of time,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told the New York Times. “But we’ll start approaching normal — if the overwhelming majority of people take the vaccine — as we get into the third or fourth quarter [of 2021].”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published February 16, 2021