One Year Later: COVID-19 Vaccines Provide Hope to Business Leaders Navigating Future of Work

Gloria Salinas, Managing Director, Economic Development

Nearly one year after the onset of the global pandemic, Operation Warp Speed, a federal effort to accelerate development, production, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, has produced three highly effective vaccines and some hope of a return to normalcy.

While the fastest vaccine development, production, and distribution usually takes four-to-five years, the rapid timeline of COVID-19 vaccines is due to federal support that helped eliminate some of the financial risk for developers, which then allowed clinical trials to be done in parallel to manufacturing and distribution development.

In the year since the start of the pandemic, the nation has had more than 29 million cases of COVID-19 and 525,000 Americans have died from the virus.

“All of the vaccines that are currently being studied have proven to be almost 100 percent effective at preventing hospitalization and almost 100 percent effective at preventing death due to COVID,” said Dr. James Cuttrell, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “And those are really the most important outcomes for our patients to keep our hospitals from filling up and to keep people from dying.”

On the one-year anniversary marking the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Cuttrell along with business leaders in change management, employment law, and health care insurance provided an update on the impact vaccines will have on returning to work. The DRC’s Friday, March 12, virtual Board of Advisors event was sponsored by Willis Towers Watson, Littler, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas (BCBSTX).

“One of the impressive things about these [clinical] trials, not only given how large they were and how fast they were, but really just the diverse populations they were studied in,” Dr. Cuttrell said.

The clinical trial distribution across gender, age, and ethnicity showed similar efficacy across subgroups, which should give people confidence in the vaccines, he said. COVID-19 vaccines have proven to provide some protection to new variants of the virus and are also recommended for people who have already had COVID-19. The emergency-use vaccines have proven to be safe for amino-compromised patients, patients with allergies, and pregnant women.

“The take home message really for anyone is take whichever vaccine you’re offered first because all three are very effective and safe,” Dr. Cuttrell said.

Today, with three emergency-use authorized vaccines in the market—Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—about 2.1 million doses per day are being administered by providers. By May 1, all available vaccines will be accessible to everyone and there will be enough vaccines for all adults by the end of May.

Here are key takeaways from the virtual roundtable discussions on employer vaccine tools and ways to maintain a healthy workplace:

‘Most Companies Are Not Mandating Vaccines’

Littler Shareholder Sherry Travers and Associate Brittaney Davis led a discussion for employers navigating legal and compliance issues surrounding vaccine mandates.

While employers can currently mandate a COVID-19 vaccine and require it in job descriptions, Travers said most companies are not mandating vaccines.

“Companies should proceed with caution because unfair labor laws protect employees in certain instances,” Travers said.

Employees with religious objections to vaccines, disabilities, and pregnant women, who were not a part of clinical trials, can legally refuse an employer-mandated vaccine.

While companies can incentivize employees to get vaccinated, they should seek legal counsel before implementing a program.

“A company is liable if an employee receiving an incentive to be vaccinated suffers an adverse reaction and the employee should file a worker’s compensation claim,” Travers said.

Littler, one of the largest global employment law firm representing companies worldwide, plans to return to the office June 1.

5 Guiding Principles in Vaccine Communication

Margaret Rutter, Senior Director of Communication and Change Management at Willis Towers Watson, said research shows individuals trust their employers as much, if not more, than the government and media outlets.

“Employers have a critical role in keeping employees safe until they can get the vaccine, making it easy for employees to get vaccinated, and educating and communicating,” Rutter said.

Rutter shared the following five Guiding Principals for COVID-19 Vaccine Communication:

      1. Make sure employees know you are committed to their safety and well-being.
      2. Focus on the facts and make it simple and easy to understand—it is safe, effective, free, and it is what will end the pandemic.
      3. Be prepared to talk about your position and being upfront and transparent will be important.
      4. Build to a more promotional campaign, helping address the fear, uncertainty, reservation, and even misinformation about the vaccine among employees.
      5. Finally leverage a variety of media to reach employees from print, postcards, emails, videos, and text to reach all employees.

Rutter recommended the CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Communication Toolkit, and noted that using inclusive and empowering language is important.

Vaccines Will Spur Return to Healthcare Services

Darrell Beckett, Divisional Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for BCBSTX, shared implications from health insurance and the role it may play for a company and its employees in the coming years.

While BCBSTX employer data shows healthcare costs and services were reduced by two percent due to the pandemic and deferred healthcare expenses, Beckett said data predicts vaccines will create a return to higher-than-normal healthcare services in 2021.

“The biggest driver for the reduction in costs was for elective items that were delayed and deferred and there’s a percentage of the delay that may not happen for several years,” Beckett said.

Healthcare costs in 2021 are expected to increase from 3.5-to-6.5 percent, a three percent jump that is expected to level off in 2022.

The impact of COVID-19 on healthcare created a surge in telehealth appointments. Today, 25 percent of appointments now are telehealth, he said.

“If there’s been anything that’s been positive that’s come out of COVID, it’s been, I think, telehealth and the emergence of telehealth as an accepted practice of healthcare,” Beckett said.

Additional resources:

Answers to Audience Questions about COVID-19 Vaccines By Dr. Brad Cutrell, UT Southwestern Medical Center:

Q: How long does the science estimate the vaccine(s) will last? Do you anticipate a yearly vaccination or booster shot?

A: The current evidence from the clinical trials demonstrates there are high levels of immune protection for at least three months following vaccination. However, based on the information showing immunity following natural infection for up to eight months or longer, we expect that the vaccines will last longer but we just do not know for how long. The original vaccine trials will follow participants for up to two years after vaccination. With regard to the idea of a COVID-19 booster shot, the vaccine companies are already developing and starting to look at the role of a booster vaccine. This could be needed to help provide a longer duration of immune protection or it could be used to help enhance the immune protection against some of the new variants. We will have more information from these studies and more clarity on this topic in the next 3-6 months.

Q: How many vaccines that were being developed via Operation Warp Speed were dumped due to them being shown as ineffective or for other reasons, such as patient safety?

A: To date, there have been a total of four vaccines that were under development that were abandoned due to either being ineffective at developing a sufficient immune response (including two that Merck was developing), or in one case, leading to false positive HIV tests (University of Queensland vaccine in Australia). Some of the other vaccines are still in early stages of development so we do not yet know whether they will make it all the way to emergency use authorization from the FDA. There have been a few of the vaccines that paused during their clinical trials to investigate potential adverse events to see if they were determined to be vaccine related or not, but this is a standard part of all vaccine development. So far, for the currently approved COVID-19 vaccines, there have not been any serious adverse effects determined to be vaccine-related or which occurred at a higher rate than in those who received placebo. In the ongoing focus on safety, this is why there are important post-authorization safety monitoring systems by both the CDC and FDA. One of the available websites that provides useful updated information about all of the vaccines in clinical development is the NY Times vaccine tracker.