COVID-19 Vaccination: A Shot in the Arm for Health — and the Economy
By supporting a vaccination program within their workforces, businesses can help lead the way on public health and economic recovery while improving their own productivity.
More than a year after the first known cases of the coronavirus were identified in the United States, we are still struggling to manage the effects of the pandemic’s fallout with hospitalizations and mortality rates at record levels. But with a vaccine now in circulation, conversation is shifting toward ensuring its rapid rollout and high take-up by larger populations.
For companies, this has created an opportunity to play an active role in improving the health and well-being of their workforces and the communities in which they operate. By encouraging employees to get vaccinated — and supporting a program around that objective — employers can bolster their own self-interests in increasing productivity and growth. At the same time, they can play a leading role in bettering the public health, helping to speed up overall economic recovery.
There are, of course, challenges in implementing a vaccination program within any workforce. Logistics is one challenge. Managing the needs of diverse business units is another. Some employees may be hesitant or even resistant to getting a vaccination for a variety of reasons. Legal challenges are also front of mind — can employers require employees to get the vaccine? Can an employer be held liable if an employee infects another employee after returning to the workforce if a vaccine was available to that employee?
Overcoming these challenges won’t be easy, but there are a number of ways to incentivize employees to get inoculated without mandating it in the workplace. The first step is understanding why getting the vaccine is important to individual businesses and to economic recovery.
Healthy People. Healthy Economy.
There is a strong correlation between public health and the performance of the economy. As one would imagine, a healthy workforce leads to a more productive and healthier economy. The opposite also applies—poor public health imperils the economy. One estimate shows that the effects of the pandemic will cost the U.S. as much as $4.8 trillion in real gross domestic product over the course of two years.
Business leaders are well aware of this fact and understand that one way to boost productivity is to get employees back into the office. In most cases, it’s simply good for business. Despite the trumpeting of remote work as the arrival of a long-developing trend by high-profile companies like Apple and Google, months into the pandemic, surveys point to greater productivity in an office setting.
This puts the onus on employers to assure employees that their offices are safe and to encourage them to get a vaccine once it is available to them. By incentivizing vaccination, employers not only benefit their employees and the company itself, but also do their part to support adjacent commerce that depends on workforce spending such as restaurants, shops, travel and other services.
Vaccination can also protect employers from unforeseen liabilities. If an employee were to become infected in the workplace because an employer failed to ensure a safe work environment, for example, the employer could potentially be held responsible. Thus, it is in businesses' best interest — from an ethical, safety and financial standpoint — to incentivize their employees to get vaccinated while leaving open the option of not being vaccinated for those opposed for health or other reasons.
Hurdles to Herd Immunity
One of the biggest concerns among health experts about getting the pandemic under control is reaching the coveted herd immunity threshold of 75% to 80% of Americans vaccinated. That is the minimum level needed to return to any sense of “normalcy.” Even if half of the U.S. population is inoculated, experts say it’s a worst-case scenario where the cost of distribution wouldn't ladder up to any tangible benefits.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to vaccinating a nation as demographically diverse as the U.S. There is already resistance from the anti-vaccination movement, for instance. In urban settings, minorities, homeless and other disenfranchised groups are less likely to have established contact with health institutions and other sources responsible for promoting and distributing the vaccine.
There are also cultural nuances that need to be taken into account. Minority and immigrant communities with lower levels of social trust in government institutions may be resistant to receiving the inoculation. A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Republicans and rural residents are the groups most likely to say they either definitely won’t get the vaccine or would only do so if required.
Similarly, a generational gap persists with a significant number of millennials said they wouldn’t get the vaccination when it is first offered, preferring to “wait and see” how the effect of the vaccine transpires over time. Since the vaccination’s rollout, however, more millennials seem to be opting in to get vaccinated.
For employers looking to open the office back up, the best approach must be tailor-fit to their company’s culture. The CDC has already come up with a number of guidelines that businesses can use as a foundation. From there, employers can apply other tactics to encourage vaccination across the board.
A Nudge in the Right Direction
Given the economic benefit of having employees back to the office, employers can run a cost-benefit analysis to determine the level of incentive that will encourage inoculation. One way to get more people on board is by working with local healthcare systems.
Research shows that individuals trust their own physicians for advice. Employers should consider disseminating vaccine-related information from local medical personnel, such as well-respected local hospitals or academic medical centers. Consider a campaign with local physicians or healthcare provider guidelines to get the message out. Just like efforts to persuade the public to get flu shots, employers can circulate notices on where to get the vaccine or arrange vaccine appointments at particular sites.
Businesses must also take an active role beyond their own offices to assist with encouraging vaccinations across the broader community. This is a role that businesses and local healthcare systems can take on together. Every effort helps, from hosting company-sponsored community events to financial support for vaccine inoculation sites within challenged communities.
Indeed, local businesses can do their part by offering giveaways, publicizing the events and locations, handing out gift cards for getting inoculated, etc. They can also provide assistance and financial support for the healthcare personnel onsite by becoming a corporate sponsor. COVID-19 is a community disease that will require a community-based effort to defeat, even with a vaccine.
With the vaccine rolling out and a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, many people are looking for guidance in the coming months. Businesses can play a hybrid role in supporting their employees and their communities.
© Copyright 2021. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.
Senior Managing Director – Chief Operating Officer, Center for Healthcare Economics and Policy