Several leading U.S. corporations have stepped up to help ensure COVID-19 vaccines get to the public as quickly as possible, while others have been slow to respond. But examples so far indicate that corporate action — or lack thereof — can make a significant difference, especially as it relates to issues of race and COVID-19 vaccine access.
Wage and race inequality in the U.S. has long bubbled under the surface. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed it further into plain sight, as low-wage frontline workers in retail, food service, logistics, and other sectors have borne the brunt of the health and economic impacts.
That divide could have been alleviated to some degree by a firm federal policy on COVID-19 worker safety. However, the Donald Trump administration refused to take action, and Trump himself actively encouraged the public to ignore simple, effective precautions against spreading the virus.
Left to their own devices, some corporate leaders rose to the occasion by offering “hero pay” and establishing protections for frontline workers. But many others were slow to adopt COVID-19 safety policies and ensure the use of protective equipment.
In particular, the meatpacking industry became a symbol of national failure on public health and poverty issues early in the pandemic. The industry is unique in its concentration among a relatively small set of rural counties that are also historically impoverished. In of these 49 counties, meatpacking is estimated to account for more than 20 percent of all employment. “Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the 49 rural meatpacking-dependent counties were facing a comparatively high prevalence of poverty,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted in a recent study of the issue.
Meat packers also typically work in close quarters, adding to the risk of infection. Using data compiled by Johns Hopkins, USDA noted a close association between meatpacking dependency and the spread of COVID-19 in the first weeks of the pandemic.
“Starting in mid-April, confirmed cases per 100,000 in rural meatpacking-dependent counties grew rapidly,” USDA wrote. By the end of April, the two-week moving average was 10 times higher for meatpacking counties than other rural counties.
As extreme as it was, the difference began to dissolve over the summer as the industry established more effective protocols. According to the USDA report, meatpacking counties fared about the same as other rural counties during the nationwide surge in infections this past fall.
The takeaway from the meatpacking sector's experience is that corporate intervention can make a difference, even under challenging circumstances where poverty and working conditions create public health obstacles.
A similar mindset could be applied to vaccine distribution, as public health experts raise concerns about equity in vaccine access. Getting time off work or transportation to a vaccine site are significant obstacles for many. Establishing trust is another challenge, especially as it relates to the fraught history of public health and race relations in the U.S.
Retailers and other industry leaders can help overcome these obstacles as they apply to their employees by establishing vaccine clinics at or near worksites. They can also leverage their communication networks to engage skeptical employees with fact-based information.
In addition, corporate leaders can deploy their trusted brand names to help make vaccines available to the general public as soon as supplies become available.
That movement is already taking shape, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a long list of retail outlets authorized to provide the vaccine, including pharmacies, supermarkets, and superstores like Walmart, Kroger and Costco.
A Walmart blog post on Jan. 22 states a goal of 10 million to 13 million doses per month and signals how other retailers can ensure that underserved communities get their fair share.
“Walmart and Sam’s Club operate more than 5,000 pharmacies in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, many of which serve underserved communities and the heart of rural America,” the company wrote, noting that this footprint pre-positions it to help in rural “healthcare deserts” and other areas where pharmacies provide the only accessible healthcare contact.
Walmart also plans to leverage its extensive community network to expand its vaccination footprint beyond its own stores. Churches, stadiums and youth centers are among the sites under consideration.
Walmart and other partners on the CDC list already have the resources at hand to gear up on-site vaccination facilities quickly. While other leading retailers may lack those resources, they can still make a difference.
One strategy is to form new partnerships. Amazon, for example, joined with Virginia Mason Medical Center to establish a public vaccination site in Seattle. The effort took just four days to pull together. Amazon has also pledged to provide the Joe Biden administration with logistical and technical support for vaccine distribution nationwide.
Another strategy is to incentivize employees to use vaccine sites. That strategy seems to be rapidly expanding. Last weekend, Vox took stock of the situation and noted that McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Lidl, Kroger, and Target are among those providing paid leave or cash bonuses for their employees to get vaccines, with Target additionally providing round-trip Lyft ride credits to a vaccination site.
The offset strategy is even more meaningful for retailers that have a large footprint in underserved communities. In that regard, there is still much room for improvement. For example, Dollar General has pledged to provide four hours of paid leave to any employee who wants to be vaccinated, but as of this writing Dollar Tree and Family Dollar have yet to announce a similar policy.
As noted by Vox, there is at least one critical gap in the corporate response. Although McDonald’s makes the list of corporations providing paid leave for vaccinations, the policy only applies to its own employees, not to its franchisee workers.
The gig economy is another area in which corporate leaders need to step up their game in order to break down vaccination barriers for low-wage workers. Instacart, for example, has pledged to provide a vaccine stipend for several categories of gig workers, which should at least partially offset time that would otherwise be spent working. Every other gig company should follow suit.
Some companies may be hesitant to promote vaccination more vigorously, out of concern of stirring up a hornet’s nest among employees or members of the public who have been sucked into the vaccine disinformation vortex. However, as more companies normalize vaccination and establish trust, the anti-vaccination movement may lose its persuasive force.
Social media companies can make a significant difference in this area. In particular, much attention has focused on Facebook’s role in spreading vaccine disinformation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years, the company had taken some steps to counterbalance disinformation on vaccines, but the pandemic exposed yawning gaps in the strategy, underscoring the urgent need for much stronger action.
Last week Facebook finally seems to have acknowledged the extent of the damage, if only in a roundabout way. Toward the end of a long, detailed statement on its efforts to help promote COVID-19 vaccination, the company briefly noted that it has adopted guidance from the World Health Organization and other experts on combating disinformation. Accordingly, Facebook stated that it has expanded its list of false claims targeted for action.
The new policy goes far beyond previous measures, which mainly involved posting disclaimers or steering traffic away from false claims. Instead, the policy now stipulates the outright removal of pages, groups, and accounts on both Facebook and Instagram that spread disinformation.
The new policy may not completely undo the disinformation circulated on Facebook and other sites, but as more corporate leaders consider taking steps to promote COVID-19 vaccination, perhaps social media will prove to be less of an enemy, and more of an ally.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.