What’s behind COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, and how can you address it in the workplace?

Just a few months ago, it was difficult to find a vaccination appointment in Colorado. Now, with 39% of the population fully immunized, it seems as though you can drop in anytime to get a shot. 

Weekly COVID-19 vaccinations administered in Colorado have been declining after peaking in early April at more than 420,000. By the week of May 9, vaccinations had fallen to just over 216,000, and vaccine distribution began outweighing administration. 

Vaccine hesitancy is one reason behind the slowdown. While the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment says vaccine hesitancy levels have fallen since September, 20% of residents still say they don’t want a vaccine. 

Why vaccine hesitancy?

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is often associated with politics and identity. Conversations about those topics may not be feasible in a workplace, but providing accurate information and answering questions outside of an overtly political context is useful.

Hesitancy is also linked to a lack of trust. Many issues contribute to that, including the speed at which the vaccine was developed. The process for vaccine development and approval is poorly understood, notes Amelia Jamison, MAA, MPH, faculty research assistant at the Maryland Center for Health Equity. 

“I think that fact introduces fears for many people, they [mistakenly] think the process has been accelerated in a way that makes it unsafe or that corners have been cut,” she said during a recent webinar titled “Should Employers Require the COVID-19 Vaccine?” offered by the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Other factors impacting vaccine hesitancy include: 

  • Misinformation spread online. 
  • Fear of side effects. 
  • Historical discrimination and wrongdoing in the medical community involving underrepresented groups. 
  • Misperceptions about the usage of mRNA technology, even though the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines developed with this technology have demonstrated unprecedented levels of effectiveness and have been shown in large-scale randomized trials and post-market surveillance to be incredibly safe.

What is your role as an employer when it comes to vaccines? You can use the following approaches to help employees get accurate information and find ways to access shots, making it easier for those who want to get vaccinated to do so.

Share educational messaging about vaccines

Building trust requires receiving accurate information. By sharing proven sources about vaccines, you can help your employees make informed choices. Reliable resources include:

Address misinformation

Misinformation has long been a threat to public health, and social media and untrustworthy websites have spread untruths about the COVID-19 vaccine. Remind employees of the best ways to find accurate information:

  • Ensuring the author of the story is qualified to write about scientific subjects.
  • Seeking information on trusted government and academic sites.
  • Viewing non-sourced social media posts, including those citing rumors or anecdotal information, with skepticism.

Offer resources to get vaccines

Accessibility is a barrier to vaccination. If a worker lacks transportation to a vaccine site, doesn’t know how to get a vaccination appointment, or can’t find an open appointment, they are less likely to get vaccinated. Employers can assist with making vaccination appointments or even host vaccination clinics by partnering with a medical provider.

Continue to point employees to resources over and over, experts advise. “Everyone is going to take their time getting the vaccine. Everyone has a different schedule, so we must be persistent, not show frustration,” said Randall C. Morgan Jr., M.D., MBA, president and CEO of the W. Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute, during the webinar.

Set realistic expectations

Fear of side effects is another reason for vaccine hesitancy. Explain potential side effects, such as arm soreness, headache, fever and body aches, and how long they may last, usually one to two days.

“I think one of the things that public health hasn't really done very well is to set people up with realistic expectations of what to expect when they go in for a vaccination appointment,” Jamison said. “And that means that when somebody does get that vaccine, and they feel a little bit strange afterward, they can reassure themselves that this is truly part of the process."

Address potential liability issues

Your goal is a healthy workforce, and you may decide that involves encouraging people to get the vaccine. But can a business be liable if it encourages vaccination and someone experiences side effects? Probably not, according to experts. There is little legal risk to an employer that echoes credible, government-based public health messages and advice.

Please note: Occupational safety is designed to protect employees. There are many reasons people cannot or do not want to get a vaccine. Pinnacol does not have a position on whether or not to mandate vaccines, nor do we encourage forcing anyone to divulge information about their vaccination status. We can offer ways to raise awareness and increase accessibility for those who are uncertain about vaccination or want to be vaccinated. 

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