When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally granted full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine last week, it seemed that the door was closed on vaccine refusers once and for all. However, employers who seek to mandate the vaccine for their employees still face many pitfalls and obstacles.
Some experts have argued that employers have always been well within their rights to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine, even under the emergency use authorization provided by the FDA.
In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Juliette Kayyem of the Kennedy School of Government echoed the sentiments of many when she argued that the time has come to stop pacifying vaccine refusers.
“Getting a shot to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 is both a social responsibility and the best way to hasten the end of the pandemic, and if you don’t believe that, we’re not waiting around for you to step up,” she wrote.
However, reality in the world of corporate healthcare is more complicated than that.
Depending on the types of employees within the workforce, some large corporations may feel that vaccine refusers will simply quit rather than keep their jobs, potentially leading to labor shortages that force shutdowns and cutbacks.
Others may be concerned about blowback from labor unions, or lawsuits brought by individuals.
Somewhat ironically, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the 2009 Affordable Care Act strengthened protections against discrimination based on various factors including body mass index as well as gender, race, disability and pre-existing conditions. That has further complicated the legal environment for employers seeking to impose penalties on employees based on their vaccination status.
As described by reporter Clare Bugos of VeryWell Health, smoking is one of the few exceptions to federal health insurance protections, and that issue is typically handled through corporate wellness programs.
The wellness program strategy appears to be the path taken by Delta Airlines. The company became a sort of canary in the vaccine coal mine last week, when it announced a steep hike in insurance rates for unvaccinated workers.
Other companies, though, appear to be waiting to assess the legal repercussions for Delta before taking the plunge. So far, corporate and government vaccine “mandates” typically provide an escape hatch by offering the alternative of weekly testing.
Despite the complications, in recent weeks vaccine refusers have been getting a cold, hard dose of reality. The new Delta variant is attacking millions of unvaccinated Americans, many of whom bought into unserious ideas about the COVID-19 virus all during the pandemic. Now their bodies are beginning to pile up in morgues all over the country.
Media attention has also begun to focus on the deaths of high-profile pundits and influencers known for spreading false information about the COVID-19 virus, the effectiveness of masks, and the safety of vaccines.
In recent days the death toll has included three high profile talk radio hosts who were killed in recent weeks by the very virus they dismissed: Florida-based Marc Bernier and Dick Farrel, as well as Tennessee-based Phil Valentine.
The three deaths have garnered widespread attention in the media, as has the death this week of Caleb Wallace, a well-known COVID-19 denier with a wide reach on social media.
In effect, COVID-19 deniers and vaccine refusers are beginning to make their own case for a vaccine mandate.
Further undermining faith in COVID-19 deniers is the increased media attention to the money mill behind some of the high-profile personalities who promote quack cures and discourage vaccination.
The money factor is important as the vaccines are free and proven safe, and masks are inexpensive. People who refuse vaccines and masks in favor of “cures” and treatments costing hundreds of dollars are not questioning their own decision, but others certainly can, and will, judge them.
One example recently cited by Agence France Presse is Sherri Tenpenny, an Ohio osteopath.
“From a $240 premium podcast annual membership to $165 webinars on why people ‘should not take the shot,’ health supplements and ticketed public speaking, Tenpenny runs a sprawling enterprise based on anti-vaccine activism, disdain for masks and testing, and denials that COVID-19 is real,” AFP reported.
Another example comes through Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has become notorious for his efforts to stop local jurisdictions from requiring the simple, effective precaution of face masks. Last week the Miami Herald reported that the governor has been taking advice from the Los Angeles-based psychiatrist Dr. Mark McDonald, who “is among a fringe group of outspoken medical professionals who have pushed ivermectin as an alternative to widespread vaccination against coronavirus.”
According to the Miami Herald, McDonald has ties to America’s Frontline Doctors, a group known for selling quack cures including the common livestock deworming medication ivermectin.
On the heels of a three-month investigation into America’s Frontline Doctors, last week Time magazine reported that “hundreds of AFLD customers and donors have accused the group of touting a service promising prescriptions for ivermectin…Some customers described being charged for consultations that did not happen. Others said they were connected to digital pharmacies that quoted excessive prices of up to $700 for the cheap medication.”
In some ways, the persistence of vaccine refusers mirrors the money machine that has fueled climate change denial. One key difference is that top climate change deniers generally have the financial resources to protect themselves from climate change impacts, leaving others to scramble to recover after drought, fire and floods destroy their homes and livelihoods.
In contrast, some of those who spread COVID-19 falsehoods and publicly rail against vaccines are just as vulnerable to serious illness and death as any member of their audience.
Perhaps the bloody trail of COVID-19 will finally convince more of the voting public to stop getting information from their “friends” on the Internet and start listening to fact-based scientific research.
In reality, though, millions already seem beyond reason. Difficult and complicated they may be, corporate vaccine mandates, with no opt-out for regular testing, are the only recourse.
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.