As COVID-19 numbers – infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths – remain at unsettling levels, recent news regarding vaccine progress is providing a much need dose of hope. Health Canada authorized use for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in December and priority groups have been receiving doses ever since with the goal of completing immunizations across the country in 2021.
Federal and provincial public health officials continue to encourage people to wear masks, distance, get flu shots and take other steps, but they are also sharing guidance relative to vaccine planning. Employers have an opportunity to take an active role in the distribution process. The time to begin planning to seize this opportunity is now.
What Employers Need to Know
Health Canada developed a vaccine rollout plan in December based on an evidence-informed approach with the intention of putting Canadians’ health and safety at the forefront. The immunization plan is reliant on six core principles laid out from the Public Health Agency of Canada:
- Science driven decision making
- Coherence and adaptability
- Fairness and equity
- Public involvement
- Consistent reporting
Health Canada’s goal in the vaccine rollout is to “enable as many Canadians as possible to be immunized as quickly as possible against COVID-19, while ensuring that high risk populations are prioritized.”
Through this process, two priority groups have been identified to first receive COVID-19 vaccinations:
- Health vulnerable: Those at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19
- Exposure vulnerable: Those most likely to be exposed to the virus
Provinces are ultimately responsible for deciding how to deploy COVID-19 vaccines within their jurisdiction, including who is prioritized first. It is important that employers refer to information from their province’s public health department for specific details.
Vaccines in Play
There are currently two vaccines in the spotlight.
The first, from Pfizer, was authorized by Health Canada on December 9 and showed 94 per cent efficacy in trials. The first vaccinations occurred in Britain on December 7.
The other is Moderna’s vaccine, which showed 94.5 per cent efficacy in trials. Moderna applied for emergency Health Canada approval and was approved on December 23.
A vaccine tracker by CTV shows that the vaccine has been administered to over 316,000 Canadians, as of January 11. Both vaccines require two doses three to four weeks apart.
TIMELINE ON PFIZER VACCINE
October 9: Pfizer submits application to Health Canada for approval
November 18: Pfizer announces its vaccine is 94 per cent effective
December 3: UK approves Pfizer vaccine
December 7: First doses are given in England
December 8: FDA issues preliminary analysis saying vaccine is safe and effective, but doesn't approve it
December 9: Canada approves the vaccine
Week of December 14: Priority groups expected to start receiving Pfizer vaccine
Source: Dailymail.co.uk (December 10, 2020[BJ1] )
Necessity Accelerating Innovation
Both vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA). Instead of injecting a weakened germ, mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. This response produces antibodies that protect against infection. The Pfizer and Moderna offerings will be the first authorized vaccines to use mRNA. The success of the COVID-19 vaccines may pave the way for other mRNA vaccines, which are can be produced faster and at a lower cost relative to traditional vaccines.
Distributing the Vaccines
In terms of distribution, vaccines are typically administered in health centres and hospitals at no charge to Canadians. However, with high demand, additional channels will be required (which may alter how vaccinations are covered), including private pharmacies/pharmacists, community providers, occupational health clinics and employers. Health Canada’s core considerations for the distribution of the vaccine include:
- Safety and efficacy
- Manufacturing and availability
- Transport and storage
- Managing misinformation
- Building trust and confidence
Federal officials expect to have all 38 million Canadians vaccinated by the end of the year. Additional supplies – from Pfizer and Moderna, and potentially other players who have vaccines at various stages of development – will be available in the spring and summer for those who are not in the priority groups.
For employers, this is the time to plan. Actions to consider include:
- Establishing a structure for developing a vaccination strategy (a committee or a task force)
- Surveying employees with broad questions (that will not elicit responses related to individual medical conditions) to get a sense of their perspectives (safety concerns, likelihood of getting vaccinated)
- Considering how to help procure or obtain vaccinations for your employees (assume full participation)
- Connecting with your insurance carrier to get a clear understanding of their plans, resources and ideas related to the vaccines
- Staying current with communications from your local health department
- Reaching out to wellness providers and vaccination providers to understand their approach and how it aligns with your organization’s strategy
Communication is also critical. Keep your employees up to date with activities, plans and expectations. Amplify messages regarding vaccine safety now so concerns aren’t an issue when the vaccine becomes available. Express your support of the vaccines as an important step in overcoming COVID-19, while reiterating the need to focus on safety to reduce infections and hospitalizations.
Finally, if your employees are working remotely, continue to support them with work-from-home and well-being resources. If they’re in the office, remain diligent in executing workplace protocols (distancing, masks, cleaning). Encourage all employees – regardless of where they are working – to get a flu shot.
Requiring the Vaccine
Mandating that employees get the vaccine is an issue that comes with legal, ethical and cultural implications, and should be discussed with legal counsel. There is precedent where organizations require vaccinations for entry (schools being a common example), but with most people not likely to have access to the vaccines until mid-to-late 2021, discussions of how a mandate could work will continue.
The ultimate outcomes will be province specific as a federal mandate is unlikely. And much will depend on the voluntary response and progress toward herd immunity.
Get the Flu Vaccine ASAP
Because the flu has symptoms similar to COVID-19, it is critical to encourage employees to get the flu vaccinations this season. While the flu vaccine does not protect against COVID-19, having received the flu vaccine may help healthcare professionals rule out the flu when evaluating patient symptoms.
This is an exciting and anxiety provoking time. We are seeing tremendous progress, but obstacles will emerge. How employers plan, engage with employees and participate in the process will have an impact on the success of the vaccination effort.
Please let us know if you have questions, concerns or ideas about where NFP’s insight and expertise can be helpful.