It might seem hard to believe, given a year in which more than 26 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 463,000 have died from it, that so many people are hesitant to get a vaccine that could bring the crisis to an end.
Yet about one-quarter of the public is vaccine hesitant, saying they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were available for free and deemed safe by scientists. Making matters worse, the U.S. Census Bureau found that even if everyone who says they will get a vaccine ultimately gets one, it won’t be enough to end the pandemic. The Biden Administration plans to launch a targeted campaign focusing on people who show the most hesitancy, in the hopes of building confidence in the vaccine.
This is precisely where business leaders have a key role to play, and where they can help change the trajectory of the road back to normal.
How business leaders can instill vaccine confidence
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy is, to put it mildly, challenging. The reluctance is the latest manifestation of the communication chaos that has surrounded COVID-19 from the start, when the common questions were: Why should I wear a mask? Does it matter whether it’s cloth, paper, or an N95? How much is a safe social distance? How often do I need to wash hands or use hand sanitizer? Does hydroxychloroquine cure COVID-19? What about bleach?
Now the questions are changing: Does the vaccine work? Is it safe? Are there enough doses for everyone? Do I need one or two shots? Are there any side effects? Can I mix and match brands? How do I know when it is my turn? Should I take the first vaccine that becomes available, or wait for the next one? Is it safe for pregnant women? These questions require trustworthy, straightforward communication. Businesses have a critical role to play in answering these questions satisfactorily. As a former corporate vice president and a medical doctor who specializes in public health communication and advises the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, my message to business leaders is that you are in a unique position to convey optimism about the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines. But alongside clear communication, you also need to develop systematic plans to vaccinate employees.
The aim should be to instill confidence among your colleagues and their families — as well as your customers, suppliers and even the general public — that community protection against the virus, otherwise known as herd immunity, is achievable. While we don’t know the precise target, the current estimate from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and others, is that 70-90% of a community will need to be immune for the virus to stop spreading. As a result, it is the baseline expectation of Salesforce’s scenario planning team that the U.S. will achieve herd immunity in the range of July to October.
This means more than just providing good information. As we noted, that timeline could be affected by many factors, the most potent being vaccine hesitancy. The Salesforce scenario planning team projects that herd immunity can be reached far sooner if we get the vaccines distributed with a timely, efficient process with accessible sites and people can be convinced that vaccination is safe. But they warn that the timeline will slip into 2022 if enough people are reluctant to get vaccinated. That is a real possibility given that, if more than 10% of the population lacks immunity, the virus could continue spreading. We need to build vaccine confidence with a coordinated effort to combat vaccine misinformation and disinformation, and offer strategies to address scenarios such as adverse event reports, different dosage schedules, new variant resistance, and shipment and scheduling delays.
New business initiative aims to promote vaccine acceptance
We can avoid that outcome. That’s the aim of the newly-formed Business Partners to CONVINCE, (COVID-19 New Vaccine Information Communication and Engagement), a global communication and education initiative to promote vaccine acceptance among private sector employers and employees, and of which I am a member.
It is led by the U.S. Council for International Business with U.S. and European universities as collaborators. We surveyed more than 13,000 people in 19 countries. Unfortunately, we found that in countries such as the U.K., France and the U.S., nearly a third expressed no interest in taking a vaccine. Other studies have had similarly ominous results. The goal of Business Partners to CONVINCE is to get that number as close to zero as possible.
Over half of respondents in the U.S. say they will take their employer’s advise about getting vaccinated.business partners to convince
One ray of hope: over half of respondents in the U.S. say they will take their employer’s advice about getting vaccinated. Trillions of dollars have already been spent combating the virus and supporting people and businesses through the pandemic. To return to normal, and to avoid spending more than the additional $1.9 trillion in relief the Biden Administration is proposing, businesses must integrate support for COVID-19 advocacy and vaccination into their plans. Any business plan for a return to normal should also include vaccine advocacy and access, as we cannot get back to normal without widespread vaccinations.
Business plans for 2021 should include a measurable target to vaccinate employees, with dedicated resources for vaccine communication and administration. This includes CEO and executive leadership testimonials and demonstration, like photos or videos of senior executives getting vaccinated. This plan should also include targets for vaccination, such as a certain number or business units fully vaccinated by a certain date, with timetables and processes to reach the milestones.
Delta Airlines and Dollar General are among the employers offering vaccine incentives and assistance.
Many employment lawyers argue against compulsory vaccination as the potential legal risk of vaccine failure, though very small, is not nil. Voluntarism and gentle persuasion with “costlessness” offering with simple incentives such as cash incentives, gift certificates or even reward points should help to encourage hesitant employees. Delta Airlines and Dollar General are among the employers offering such incentives. Interactive employee chats with medical experts, or union leaders where appropriate, could also allay concerns.
Business leaders also have an important role to play in advancing vaccine literacy and uptake in wider society. Educational programs for employees can help disperse the knowledge needed to convince other community members to willingly accept vaccination. Many companies, including Salesforce, are doing this by hiring chief medical officers who are tasked with educating and overseeing the wellbeing of employees. Developing this special form of literacy includes arming each individual with the skills, ability and knowledge to choose to accept vaccination, strengthening healthcare and education systems to generate demand for vaccines, and investing in digital health and communication improvements to make vaccine protection a global social norm.
Business Partners to CONVINCE has recently launched a Global COVID-19 Workplace Challenge with the U.S Council for International Business to leverage business innovation and strategies to help ensure a strong and swift worldwide recovery. The world’s biggest employers can set objectives with proven success that has built brand value, growth targets and market development. The business objective to advance a vaccinated workforce and customer base can be accomplished with business approaches. The Salesforce playbook for reopening safely is a good place to start.
If businesses do the job they have the resources and the clout to do, we can have normalization of COVID-19 prevention, and 80% vaccine coverage.
Employers and labor unions can work together to set goals, put public health measures in place, and help ensure rapid diffusion of vaccination. They can become certified as COVID-protected (meaning 90% vaccinated populations) to help restore confidence and trust. This can be linked to compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) to provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards.
The stakes are high, and the situation could not be more serious. Our society, our economy, and our own lives are at stake. But if businesses do the job they have the resources and the clout to do, we can have normalization of COVID-19 prevention, and 80% vaccine coverage. The goal — and let’s not forget that it is achievable if the right efforts are made — is a vaccine-protected world by this time next year.