Feb 10, 2021

How Will Small Businesses Employees Get COVID-19 Vaccines?

The long-awaited arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine has prompted hopeful discussions on whether the reopening of the American economy may finally be on the horizon and if some pandemic workplace changes will be here to stay. But your small business probably has a more urgent question about when your employees can get the vaccine—especially if you have essential workers who’ve been on the high-risk frontlines for months, like food service employees, delivery drivers, or healthcare workers.

You may have already heard who’s getting the vaccine first because those doses are currently being administered. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced in December 2020 that their vaccination recommendation started with Phase 1a, where healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents would start getting the vaccine first. 

But that’s the easy part. Large-scale vaccination of the whole country is an enormous challenge when vaccine supplies are extremely limited. Public health experts are also worried that people won’t know when their population has the green light for the vaccine or that others might give up when trying to navigate a confusing and time-consuming system to find out if they are eligible.

The CDC has also outlined its plans for who gets the vaccine next in a highly technical description where they refer to these groups as Phases 1b and 1c. The write-up is not easy to understand, but it attempts to recommend how states and companies should report their data, any potential problems with people who work multiple jobs, and guidelines on avoiding discrimination risks. 

We’ll try to explain below whether your business could see you and your employees on the vaccination list, with a rough outline for when you might be able to expect that. But realize these are all still just recommended guidelines that have not been approved and could change at any minute if the pandemic enters any unexpected new phases.

Who Gets the Vaccine Next

The first batch of vaccinations is currently going to Phase 1a populations who are uniquely easy to reach because they’re healthcare workers and elder care residents. We know exactly where they work or live, and they are relatively small populations.

The CDC lays out the next phase in, again, very technical language, “In Phase 1b, COVID-19 vaccine should be offered to persons aged ≥75 years and non–healthcare frontline essential workers, and in Phase 1c, to persons aged 65–74 years, persons aged 16–64 years with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers not included in Phase 1b.” 

So age and medical conditions are a big factor, but notice their inclusion of “non–healthcare frontline essential workers.” As USA Today explains, that classification could be quite broad. It may prioritize vaccinations for some industries you might not expect, like construction workers, finance workers, and people in the legal industry.

But these are still recommended guidelines, not final decisions. In many cases, your city or state will make the final decision.

How Will People Be Notified When They Are Eligible for the Vaccine?

Just like restrictions involving masks and indoor dining, your city or state may make these determinations. The state of New York has announced its plan to introduce an online screening tool to help residents determine their place in the vaccine line. Colorado and Virginia have launched trackers that inform their residents who is currently eligible or when others can expect their vaccination. But these are unlikely to work without public awareness campaigns because not many people check state government websites.

Maryland’s very detailed plan aims to notify people by text and email, which seems more sensible. Some cities are also taking this tack, like San Francisco. But no matter how effective a plan your city or state draws up, they are still counting on the federal government to provide the vaccine doses.

How The Government Will Distribute The Vaccine 

It’s fair to guess that vaccine doses will eventually be free for everyone, regardless of their health insurance status, because that’s what also eventually happened with COVID-19 testing. But just like with the testing, it took us many months to get to that point. And vaccine doses are substantially more difficult to handle and transport.

Even in these very early days, there have been logistical nightmares with vaccine distribution—particularly with the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be stored at 94 degrees below zero. NBC News reports on states having trouble distributing the vaccine, like in Georgia, where healthcare workers have to drive as long as 40 minutes each way to get vaccinated. In Utah and Kentucky, vaccination sites did not have enough sub-zero freezer capacity to store the vaccines. A number of rural states will inevitably force people to drive at least 10 miles to get vaccinated.  

Healthcare Finance reports that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced in November said they would work with a who’s-who of national chain stores that have in-house pharmacies to administer mass vaccinations. Walmart, CVS, Albertsons, and many other recognizable names are in that announcement. HHS has also partnered with universities and hospitals to create a website called VaccineFinder that will help individuals find the nearest location to get their vaccine shot. But it remains to be seen whether these plans and partnerships go smoothly, and there will almost certainly be some unexpected hurdles in the process.

How Will My Business Be Notified That Employees Can Get The Vaccine?

As we see with the first doses currently being administered to healthcare employees, workplaces will sometimes be mustered to get their staff vaccinated. Employers may play a similarly critical role with other industries, particularly if their workers have been designated as essential workers.

But even if your business is classified as an essential business, there are no guarantees you’ll be notified directly. Smaller, independent businesses like pharmacies and caretakers could fall through the cracks. If a dentist or physician works as an independent contractor or 1099 employee, they too could be overlooked in the notification process.

It may fall on you, the employer or sole proprietor, to proactively check with your city or state’s announcements whether you or your staff are eligible for vaccination. You might never receive any sort of text, email, or announcement telling you this. If your line of business has not been announced as “essential” in any previous state or federal designations, don’t count on the government telling you your employees can go get vaccinated. 

There has been concern about line-jumping or some industries having sharp elbows about insisting their employees get vaccinated first. Professional trade groups or unions representing restaurants, meat workers, and airline pilots have argued that their workers are so crucial that they should be prioritized. Uber wants its drivers to get early vaccine access, which is ironic because Uber has generally resisted giving their drivers direct healthcare benefits.

There is certainly societal value to getting as many people as possible vaccinated and keeping vaccine waste to an absolute minimum. You may have heard the term herd immunity as a method of defeating coronavirus, where a significant percentage of the population becomes immune to a virus. But public health experts say that as much as 90% of a population needs to be immune to achieve true herd immunity. The US population is about 330 million people, so 90% of that would be 297 million people. CNBC reports that we’ve currently vaccinated just over 11 million people, so we have a long way to go toward herd immunity.

The COVID-19 vaccination rollout has been glitchy, and it may continue to be so. But there are possibly 2 more potential new vaccines (from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca), and more vaccines will more quickly facilitate the economic rebound we’ve all been waiting for. Small businesses have suffered more in the pandemic recession, and those are the businesses that could really use—literally—a shot in the arm.

About the author

Joe Kukura
Joe Kukura
Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer whose work also appears in SF Weekly and SFist. He’s written financial advice for NerdWallet, tech industry analysis for the Daily Dot, sports content for NBC Bay Area, and good, old-fashioned clickbait for Thrillist.

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