Businesses across the country are ready, willing, and able to help America get vaccinated. They have the reach, relationships, and trust to help overcome distribution barriers and vaccine hesitancy.
There’s only one problem: There’s no easy way for them to do vaccinations.
Many of the nation’s largest employers tell the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which I work for, that they’ve developed sophisticated vaccination strategies designed to get doses into the arms of any employee who wants one. Some are willing to vaccinate employees’ relatives, the employees of other companies, and even the broader communities in which they operate.
Yet the process to host a vaccine clinic is unnecessarily complicated. Each state has its own approach, and few have prioritized workplaces, even though vulnerable populations are overrepresented among essential workers.
When the U.S. had a limited supply of Covid-19 vaccines, the government understandably took steps to initially allocate doses for those at highest risk and whose work was essential to the functioning of society.
But the supply-demand equation is about to flip. President Biden is calling on states to make vaccines available to everyone over the age of 16, and several states are expanding eligibility as millions of new doses enter the system. But with the current distribution plan, the country will hit a roadblock in getting vaccines to workers. Many doses could end up in freezers instead of arms.
It’s time to supercharge the vaccination process by empowering employers to do the same thing with Covid-19 vaccines that they’ve historically done with flu shots. In recent years, about 15% of adults vaccinated against influenza said they were vaccinated at workplace clinics. This has proven to be a simple and effective way to stop the spread of seasonal influenza, and there’s no reason to believe this approach won’t work just as well in the fight against Covid-19.
More than 123 million people over the age of 16 hold full-time jobs in the United States. Every one of them needs a vaccine. The government could allocate doses to large employers that allow them to reach people at scale in communities across the country. And states could prioritize onsite clinics at factories, offices, and agricultural and construction sites to ensure equality of access.
Right now, overstretched public health agencies bear much of the burden of providing vaccinations. Unless public resources are freed up and the assets of companies are leveraged to focus on underserved or harder-to-reach populations, those at highest risk are likely to continue suffering and dying at disproportionate — and unacceptable — levels.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra had it right when he said the federal government needs to make sure vaccines “reach people where they are.” It’s not enough to have a website or a clinic in a far-off location. Vaccines must be accessible.
Existing vaccination systems, which were built on patchworks of policies, create confusion, making it hard to schedule an appointment even if you have internet access and the tech prowess to navigate the various websites offering information about getting vaccinated. These factors drive dangerous disparities in vaccine access.
Research shows that workers want their employers to share information, address their concerns, make it easy for them get the shot, and provide incentives such as time off. Research conducted by Edelman shows that “employer communications is the most credible source of information about the coronavirus.” Data from Civis shows that employers can play an important role in increasing vaccinations if they lead by example when executives become eligible to get the shot.
Many large companies are ready to host turnkey worksite clinics with in-house or contracted medical personnel. Employers of all sizes are prepared to supply the space, volunteers, and other resources necessary for clinics. They’re not starting from zero: Businesses have been involved in the Covid-19 response from the beginning of the pandemic. Ever since vaccines were first authorized in December, companies like Honeywell, Microsoft, and Starbucks have used their logistics, technologies, and customer experience expertise to support government-run clinics across the country.
The results are impressive. In Washington, a public-private partnership used best practices from retail to boost the speed with which it vaccinated local residents. West Virginia, a national leader in vaccinations, attributes much of its success to its partnership with local pharmacies, a bedrock of Main Streets across the country. In Louisiana, InclusivCare, a small medical provider, is distributing vaccines to communities of color severely affected by Covid-19. To date it has helped administer more than 7,000 vaccines.
Employer-aided vaccination is a path forward for America. We’ve relied on the innovation of business to get us through the pandemic up to this point. It’s time to make it easier for employers to protect their employees and get our country back to health.
Michael Carney is senior vice president of emerging issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.