Vaccines, Herd Immunity, and the Workplace

As of the writing of this article, about half of the U.S. adult population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Employers have questions about returning to or allowing more employees into the workplace. These are complex decisions that require in-depth analysis and careful consideration.

Scientists estimate achieving herd immunity will require upwards of 70% of the population to be inoculated. Dr. Anthony Fauci believes, based on his gut and new science, bringing the virus to a halt may take close to 90% immunity — nearly as much as is needed to stop a measles outbreak.

Unfortunately, all estimates are merely best guesses, and, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website states, “experts do not know” when it comes to herd immunity. In fact, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says, “this value of herd immunity is very much dependent on how transmissible the virus is and the variants that may, in fact, be a moving target. Here’s what I do know, the more people we have vaccinated, the less transmission will happen.”

The following questions illustrate why understanding the herd immunity concept and how it may apply to the workplace is important:

Can I group employees into those who have been vaccinated and can thus go without masks in the workplace?

At this point, the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have not changed their recommendations: employees should continue to wear face coverings (masks), remain physically distanced, and keep barriers up where physical distancing can’t be maintained, while employers should focus on improving ventilation, providing supplies for good hygiene (e.g., tissues and no-touch trash cans, soap, and water, touchless hand sanitizer stations, hand sanitizer), and performing routine cleaning and disinfection.

On May 2, 2021, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued Amended Public Health Order (PHO) 20-38 making changes to mask requirements in public indoor spaces. See our article here. In other states, with few exceptions (e.g., private office), face masks must still be worn in the workplace. And what effect would grouping your employees into vaccinated vs. nonvaccinated have on morale? What other issues could doing so create?

Do employees who refuse vaccination have power in the workplace when it comes to influencing others to not get vaccinated?

Certainly, some employees may think they can influence others — and they might be able to do so. We know some may not trust vaccinations, and that is their right. You, as the employer, need to hold all employees accountable for the work safety rules you have put in place. Educate your employee population and apply the rules to everyone. You need to be the influencer in the workplace as it relates to vaccines.

Is it possible that employees who CANNOT get vaccinated may be bullied by those who are resentful that everyone still has to physical distance/mask due to them?

Communication is key here. Educate your staff about the importance of getting vaccinated using language(s) that all employees will understand and encourage all employees who can get vaccinated to do so. The CDC has a toolkit you can use, and we have an FYI (with sample policies) on vaccines that can also aid you in your communications. Remember how important it is to communicate that some people may be unable to or simply choose not to receive the vaccine. And reiterate that, as of now, there is nothing in the guidelines that says to stop physical distancing and mask-wearing in the workplace.

If issues crop up, look at and address them case by case. Review the state/local health department, CDC, and OSHA guidelines, get out your risk assessment, and do a proper analysis. Craft a plan on how you, as an employer, will respond to and support any affected employees. If it hasn’t already begun, it will. Employees will chat about who has had their shot(s)/vaccine(s), whether in person or online.

Finally, make sure your employees have a way to report any bullying issues and that you have a rigorous reporting system in place for them. Provide training like our on-site class Violence at Work. The CDC also has some suggestions (linked below) and links to other resources for training and actions to prevent workplace violence.

What if my customer refuses to work with one of my employees unless they have been vaccinated? Can they request evidence?

See the previous answer. As of the writing of this article, no, a customer may not request evidence that an employee is vaccinated. This information should be treated confidentially and not shared with co-workers, clients, or customers. Check out the resources from the CDC on Limiting Workplace Violence Associated with COVID-19 Prevention Policies — this is directed more toward retail and services business, where threats and assaults, unfortunately, may be more likely to occur.

How can I support my employees when customers/visitors/clients claim they don’t have to wear a mask because they are already vaccinated?

See previous bullets. Post signs letting your customers/visitors/clients know your workplace safety guidelines before they walk through the doors.

Fully vaccinated people should still watch for symptoms of COVID-19, especially if they’ve been exposed to someone who has recently tested positive. Regardless of vaccination status, if symptoms do develop, isolate and be evaluated for COVID-19, including testing at the advice of your health care practitioner. Those who are fully vaccinated can still contract COVID-19 (although these cases tend to be less symptomatic and less likely to spread it) and shed the virus while contagious.

Since health authorities have not yet come out and said, “no more masks,” the vaccination status of your employees is moot. Treat them all the same. Vaccinated or not, employees, clients, and customers are still at risk of transmitting and contracting the virus. When asked about when we will no longer need to wear masks, Dr. Walensky responded, “No vaccine is perfect. Ultimately this is going to be a matter of risk. What I can say is this, a 95% effective vaccine is extraordinarily effective. If we can have a 95% effective vaccine and we can get our caseload down, then we’ll be in good shape as a country.” While there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we, unfortunately, have not yet reached a point of not wearing masks, so continue to listen to the experts and follow the science.