The COVID-19 vaccines are on all of our minds: they’re tantalizingly close, yet, if you’re not a high-priority candidate, frustratingly far away.
“We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries from employers and they’re eager to start making plans,” says Kevin Ronneberg, Vice President and Associate Medical Director at HealthPartners.
While vaccine availability and access are rising, employers are still struggling with a number of unknowns.
According to Ronneberg, developing a COVID-19 vaccination strategy – which encompasses your organization’s vaccination policy and goals, communications plan, vaccination program details and more – can help prepare your employees and organization.
“We want employers to be confident about the COVID-19 vaccine,” says Ronneberg. “COVID-19 vaccinations are key to fully re-opening our workplaces and schools, helping us create safe work environments and get back to business as usual.”
Here are six facts to help guide your organizational planning and communications around the COVID-19 vaccine.
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1. Continue promoting public health measures
Vaccinating the entire United States adult population is no easy feat and will take time. That’s why employers must remain vigilant, constantly highlighting the need for the well-known public health measures to their employees throughout 2021.
“I can’t emphasize enough the need to continue protecting ourselves through distancing, washing hands and wearing masks,” says Ronneberg.
“The virus is still out in the community. It’s circulating at exceedingly high rates and new variants may accelerate that. Vaccinated individuals may also be asymptomatic and unknowingly pass the virus along to others, which could increase infection and further burden our already stressed healthcare systems. That’s why we need to maintain public health measures throughout this vaccination effort.”
2. Know the facts about the COVID-19 vaccines
As of March 2021, the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) COVID-19 vaccines are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization.
Both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology and require two doses for full effectiveness, which for both is about 95 percent. The Janssen vaccine requires only one dose for full effectiveness, with an efficacy level of 72 percent. The key difference is in handling and storage. Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine requires storage at extreme cold temperatures, limiting its distribution. Because the Moderna and Janssen COVID-19 vaccines can be stored in a regular freezer, they are more accessible.
Three additional manufacturers are also close to applying for Emergency Use Authorization in the United States for their COVID-19 vaccines: AstraZeneca and Novavax.
“These additional vaccines, if approved, could improve availability due to less stringent handling and storage requirements, making them easier to distribute to clinics, pharmacies and community locations,” says Ronneberg.
Important update as of April 13, 2021: Because the FDA and the CDC take vaccine safety very seriously, they have recommended pausing use of the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine while they evaluate 6 reported cases of rare blood clotting events. These events have occurred out of nearly 7 million people who've already received the vaccine. HealthPartners is following FDA and CDC guidance and postponing appointments for this vaccine across its care system until further notice.
For more specifics about this potential rare side effect, visit the FDA and CDC’s joint media release for more information.
3. Follow your state's COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan
One of the most important questions employers are asking is: when will my workforce get the vaccine?
Vaccines are being distributed by states in phases. Most phases are based on age, job type and/or health risk factors. The definition of each phase, timing of when each will begin, and vaccine distribution strategy and supply vary by state.
Many care systems are expected to reach out to existing patients in key age groups to schedule them for vaccine appointments by phase.
Because vaccine distribution plans can rapidly evolve, Ronneberg recommends checking these resources regularly:
• Your state’s health department vaccine website: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updates on vaccine distribution
• HealthPartners COVID-19 patient vaccine FAQ webpage
• HealthPartners COVID-19 business resource hub for details on testing, coverage, and vaccines
4. Discuss COVID-19 vaccine safety with your employees
Employees may be worried about whether the COVID-19 vaccine is safe because this is the first time a messenger RNA approach vaccine has been approved for use. Preliminary data suggest these vaccines are highly effective at preventing COVID-19, and they are very safe in the trials to date. Adverse side effects, such as the 6 blood clotting events reported with the Janssen vaccine, are rare.
Compared to a typical influenza vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccines cause more temporary injection site reactions, low grade fever, and body aches. But these reactions are not cause for concern – it means they’re working as they should.
“Because the messenger RNA vaccines are new, for some people that’s scary,” says Ronneberg. “However, this is an approach that has been researched for decades; it’s well-known and well-studied. The mRNA COVID vaccine sends a temporary code to your cells to make a spike protein, which allows the body to develop anti-bodies against the virus, and then disappears; it does not become a permanent part of your DNA.”
AstraZeneca and the Janssen vaccines, mentioned above, “use a vaccine technology called a viral vector, which uses a version of a common cold virus that is not effective at causing colds but is effective at introducing fragments of the COVID virus, giving our body an opportunity to generate anti-bodies without being infected or developing COVID,” says Ronneberg.
Scientific tracking of vaccine safety
HealthPartners has extensive experience in vaccine surveillance. Since 1998, it has collaborated with nine other healthcare organizations across the United States to evaluate and monitor vaccine safety through an initiative called Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD).
“VSD will play a vital role in following the side effects, problems, and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine,” explains Ronneberg. “The healthcare organizations involved collectively use data from Electronic Health records (EHRs) to track trends and follow-up with individuals experiencing these issues to understand what’s happening. What other types of health conditions do they have? Can we dig a bit deeper? HealthPartners overall has a unique history participating in vaccine and effectiveness research.”
5. Get your legal team involved early
Your employees may already be asking if your organization is going to make vaccinations mandatory. While employers have a choice of whether they require vaccinations or not, it’s important, according to Ronneberg, to engage your legal team early to make the right decision for your organization. Every work environment is different and there are many considerations, including privacy concerns, risks to working side by side with others in the workforce, and other reasonable accommodations that fall under workplace discrimination laws.
6. Know there’s no charge for the COVID-19 vaccine
Because hundreds of millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were bought by the federal government, those doses will be available at no cost to individuals. However, those administering the vaccine may charge an administration fee to health plans. The Care Act Provider Relief Fund will also cover uninsured patient expenses for the provider.
For additional support and answers to your COVID-19 FAQs:
- Check HealthPartners COVID-19 patient vaccine FAQ webpage
- Visit HealthPartners COVID-19 employer page for more details on COVID-19 testing
- Download our COVID-19 employer vaccination program checklist to help your organization create a safe work environment
- Check out the HealthPartners COVID-19 resources for businesses and workplaces information hub