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Multiple COVID-19 vaccines are now being distributed across the world. Initial reports indicate that distribution has been slow, but the pace will surely pick up in coming weeks as more vaccines are produced. The vaccine is the light at the end of a dark tunnel that lasted for the majority of 2020. Many employers are optimistically looking forward to their employees receiving the vaccine, as it will allow operations to return to some form of normalcy.

In this post, we’ll cover the most important things that employers need to be aware of when it comes to COVID vaccine distribution and timelines. Specifically, we’ll cover:

  • Phases and Priorities for COVID Vaccine Release
  • Legality of Mandatory Vaccines
  • Strategies to Encourage Employees to Receive the Vaccine
  • COVID Vaccine Coverage

Phases and Priorities for COVID Vaccine Release

It’s helpful to think of COVID vaccine distribution in three phases:

  • Phase 1: Potentially limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses available – During this phase with a limited supply of vaccines, efforts will be concentrated on vaccinating priority populations (we are currently in the midst of Phase 1).
  • Phase 2: Large number of vaccine doses available – During the second phase, enough vaccinations will be available to vaccinate the general population.
  • Phase 3: Sufficient supply of vaccine doses for entire population (surplus of doses) – During the final phase of vaccine distribution, the focus will be on ensuring equitable vaccination access and continual monitoring of COVID-19 infections.

Even more important than understanding the general phases of vaccine distribution is an understanding of which populations are being prioritized for the vaccine. The following groups of people are considered the top priority for vaccinations:

  • Healthcare personnel (paid and unpaid persons serving in healthcare settings who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials)
  • Non-healthcare essential workers
  • Adults with high-risk medical conditions who possess risk factors for severe COVID-19 illness
  • People 65 years of age and older (including those living in LTCFs)

Legality of Mandatory Vaccines

Many employers are likely wondering if they can require that their employees get the vaccine. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, here are some things that employers CAN do:

  • Require employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations
    • However, employers may need to accommodate certain refusals. We’ll explain more about this later in this section.
  • Ask employees if they have COVID-19 or relevant symptoms.
  • Screen applicants for COVID-19 symptoms after making conditional job offers. 
  • Require employees to stay home if they have COVID-19 or its symptoms. Requiring medical notes before returning to work is permissible.

Employers should know how vaccines relate to the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, vaccines are considered a medical exam. For an employer to mandate vaccines, they must be job-related and consistent with business necessity. The ADA also allows employers to require that their employees undergo certain health screenings and inquiries depending on the state of employment.

We’ll conclude this section by listing some reasons that individuals may be exempt from a vaccine mandate:

  • Certain disabilities
  • Pregnancy
  • Religious beliefs

Medical documentation can be requested for disabilities and pregnancy.

Before you implement a vaccine mandate at your company, you should consult with your HR leadership and ideally your legal council to make sure you have an agreed upon strategy for managing vaccine exemptions.

Strategies to Encourage Employees to Receive the Vaccine

As explained in the previous section, employers do have the right to require that employees receive the vaccine. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. A better strategy might be to encourage vaccination rather than requiring it. Requiring the vaccine has the potential to cause serious issues, especially if a large number of employees refuse to comply with the mandate.

Consider the following simple strategies for encouraging vaccination:

  • Subsidize the cost of vaccines.
  • Allow paid time off to go get vaccines.
  • Offer vaccines at the workplace to reduce any inconvenience.

Your local health department has most likely already created vaccine-related educational content that can be shared with your employees to inform them about the facts related to the COVID vaccines.

COVID Vaccine Coverage

An interim rule was passed by several federal government entities on November 6, 2020 that will require Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers to cover a COVID-19 vaccine without any cost sharing.

For private health plans, this rule implements a requirement in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that plans provide coverage (without cost sharing) for qualifying COVID-19 preventive services. COVID-19 immunizations are considered preventive services.

Additionally, plans and issuers must cover qualifying COVID-19 preventive services during the entirety of the COVID-19 public health emergency without cost sharing. This is true regardless of whether an in-network or out-of-network provider delivers the preventive services.

The bottom line is that your business’ healthcare plan will be required to cover COVID-19 preventive services, including the vaccine, with no cost sharing.

Key Takeaways

Employers should know that vaccine distribution will take place in three phases. Unless you are a healthcare, education, or frontline-worker based organization, your employees will probably receive the vaccine during the second phase.

Priority populations for vaccination during the first phase are:

  • Healthcare personnel
  • Non-healthcare essential workers (i.e. frontline workers)
  • Adults with high-risk medical conditions
  • People 65 years of age and older

Vaccine mandates for employees are permissible under the EEOC and ADA. However, you should be aware of certain exemptions based on disabilities, certain health conditions like pregnancy, or religious beliefs. Before a mandate in implemented, employers should have a plan in place for dealing with these exemptions.

As a general best practice, it may be wiser to encourage vaccination rather than require it.

Rules approve by several federal agencies require that Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers cover COVID-19 preventive procedures with no cost sharing. This includes vaccination.

This blog post has been a summary of the most important things employers should know about vaccine distribution. If you are in need of a more detailed breakdown of this topic, download our complete eBook: COVID-19 Vaccine Playbook for Employers.

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