Uncertainty Swirls Around Vaccinating Colorado's Essential Workers, Including Whether Enough Will Even Want The Shots
Workers between grocery store aisles and on production lines are still at risk of getting sick while they wait in the vaccine line. Here's what companies are doing to prepare for that and what happens when workers reject doses.
Standing between Colorado and the end of the pandemic are millions who still need COVID-19 vaccines. Issues with supply, access, equitable distribution, new strains of the virus, communication and vaccine hesitancy complicate the state’s path to “herd immunity.”
If supply holds steady, people under 65 in essential job categories (retail, agriculture, manufacturing) probably won’t get vaccines until March. The uncertainty and distance means companies like meatpacking-giant JBS are still in the early stages of making plans for that.
“We have a group of folks that are in constant communication with the (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment), as well as other state and local officials on what the vaccination process might look like,” said Tim Schellpeper, president of JBS’ Fed Beef Business Unit, which includes the infamous Greeley plant. “And whether that's at our facility or an adjacent facility, those details are still being worked out.”
In the meantime, he said, JBS is trying to convince workers the vaccine is safe and worth taking through multilingual texts, meetings and flyers.
“We're setting up some communication teams in the hallways or cafeterias just to go over information and answer questions that our teammates might have,” he added.
JBS and employers like Dollar General, Trader Joe's and even gig worker-based Instacart have announced incentives ranging from four hours worth of extra pay (so workers can take time off to get the vaccine) to $100. The Colorado Sun reports some school districts are also considering offering incentives for teachers and staff, who can start getting vaccinated next week.
On the other hand, Walmart won’t offer incentives or mandate the vaccine “at this time.” Many companies (including JBS) are covering the cost of the vaccine for their employees.
How essential workers feel about vaccination
Some workers told KUNC they really want to get vaccinated so they can work without facing health risks to themselves or their loved ones.
“There are a lot of people sick — in and out (of the meatpacking plant),” said Anthony Martinez, a clod puller at JBS’ Greeley plant. He already had a mild case of COVID-19 during the plant’s first outbreak, but still plans to get vaccinated so he can safely visit his 90-year-old grandparents before they pass away.
But like any economic, demographic or professional group, it's a mixed bag: about a third of essential worker respondents in recent national December polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Gallup said they probably or definitely wouldn't get the vaccine.
It’s not that they don’t understand how destructive the coronavirus is. Maricela Guzman long feared getting it at her King Soopers store in Greeley. Earlier this year, her grandmother died with it. Still, Guzman doesn’t trust the vaccines — though she'd be willing to take it if her employer requires it.
King Soopers and other grocery chains have clinics to vaccinate people in the state’s active phases in their stores. King Soopers declined to comment on plans for vaccinating its workers. But in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Tim Massa, senior vice president of human resources and labor relations at Kroger (which owns King Soopers) seemed to indicate the company would not mandate vaccinations.
Reasons for hesitancy vary beyond just trust.
“I'm not saying it's bad,” said Scott Smith, another employee at JBS’ Greeley plant. “Some people want it and some people probably really need it. But my personal belief is I haven't ever gotten a flu vaccine, so I'm not going to get a COVID vaccine.”
Smith doesn’t doubt the coronavirus. He strongly believes in other public health precautions, like masking and social distancing. He's gotten the virus, his wife has gotten it and at JBS his coworkers are still getting it.
Both vaccine-hesitant and accepting people point to cases of allergic reactions, the vast majority of which are mild, as cause for concern. One of the 25 JBS workers who qualified for the vaccine went to the emergency room because of an allergic reaction from the shot, a JBS spokesperson said. The employee was discharged from the hospital within a few hours and is back at work, they added.
In Colorado, less than 50 reported possible adverse effects from the vaccine led to time in an ER or hospital, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control. And like the JBS case, the vast majority didn’t stay overnight. Though, many of those hospitalizations are still under investigation and could have nothing to do with the vaccine.
Even if it turns out all those hospitalizations are a result of the vaccine, state data show confirmed deaths from COVID infections in Colorado are around 100 times more common, hospitalizations with the virus are about 430 times more. And there are significantly more vaccinated people than people with confirmed infections.
“I think it's the right thing to do,” said Anthony Martinez of the vaccine, even as he talked about hearing multiple people had been hospitalized because of it at the Greeley plant (only one actually had). “So this (pandemic) doesn't continue. I think everybody should get it.”
Putting out information isn’t enough, said Dr. Mark Wallace, it has to come from sources folks trust.
Dr. Wallace is the chief clinical officer of Sunrise Community Health Clinics and medical director of the Northern Colorado Health Alliance. About a quarter of Sunrise Community Health’s staff declined vaccination, similar to many other health care providers.
“That trusted source, even inside health care, may not be what they're hearing from health care literature,” he said. “Could be their family, could be their grandma, could be their auntie.”
Wallace isn't discouraged by the polling or hesitance within his own ranks. He says vaccine-declining staff at Sunrise mostly want to wait and see how it affects people who took it. He thinks most will come around. To his point, a majority of respondents in the December Kaiser poll said they just wanted to wait and see. Kaiser also noted COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy across all demographics has dropped compared to polling in September.
What vaccine rejection could mean for Colorado
18% of workers in Kaiser’s December poll said they “definitely” won't take the vaccine. That vaccine hesitancy rate across all groups would probably be enough to achieve herd immunity, Dr. Wallace said. But if it’s bigger:
“We could be impacted by certain groups that are not hitting that target,” Dr.Wallace said. “The whole purpose of talking about herd immunity is we protect people who don't protect themselves. So if we can drive up the folks that will help us achieve herd immunity at a population level, that decreases transmission and helps protect others.”
Sunrise Community Health is working with JBS to educate workers about the vaccine.
“We are still maintaining our diligence and all the interventions that we have put in place,” said Tim Schellpeper, president of JBS’ Fed Beef Business Unit, in response to a question about whether vaccine hesitancy in the meatpacking company’s Greeley plant could make workers unsafe.
JBS believes interventions like face masks and shields, staggered shifts, physical barriers and spacing people out “where possible” have been effective in protecting employees, he said. The Greeley plant has had at least 390 total infections and is on its second outbreak now.
The federal government fined JBS for failing to protect its workers during the first outbreak in April, which led to about 290 cases and six deaths. The union representing workers at the Greeley plant said the company still fails to protect them. Workers like Anthony Martinez echo that. (Scott Smith disagrees. Employee “behavior” has been the problem lately, he said, not corporate failures.)
On Monday, a congressional panel opened an investigation into coronavirus outbreaks at JBS and other meatpacking companies' plants. Shellpeper wouldn’t comment on that in an interview with KUNC the same day, but in a written statement the company said it welcomes “the opportunity to provide members of the Select Subcommittee with information regarding our response to the global pandemic and our efforts to protect our workforce. Since the onset of the pandemic, JBS USA has invested more than $200 million in health and safety interventions...”
Outside of the workplace, coronavirus variants have been making headlines. For now, most variants that experts are watching just spread faster and can’t totally dodge vaccines, per the CDC. But the more time COVID-19 spends spreading, the more the virus will naturally mutate, increasing the risk of worse, more vaccine-resistant versions being created.
Recent measles outbreaks occur in communities where people are not vaccinated, according to the CDC, even though the nation has herd immunity against it. One in five unvaccinated people who get it are hospitalized. But the CDC says vaccine-based herd immunity has largely prevented measles from becoming a pandemic, at least for now.
Efforts to increase employee vaccination
It’s unclear how effective vaccination incentives by employers are. Both JBS workers KUNC spoke to said the $100 incentive the meatpacking giant is offering has no effect on their decision making.
“$100 isn't anything these days,” Anthony Martinez said with a chuckle.
70% of a “representative sample” of workers JBS surveyed indicated an interest in taking the vaccine. A company spokesperson declined to provide the exact size of that sample.
“The $100 is an added benefit for our team members,” Tim Schellpeper said when asked if JBS believes the incentive will actually change minds. “It's just part of what we are doing for this process. But we also respect the individual decisions of our employees.”
Not many employers are publicly considering the more forceful step of mandating vaccination (which they legally can do, within some limits). Any that do may face some obstacles. Like having to bargain to put such a mandate on union workers. The United Food And Commercial Workers Local 7 president Kim Cordova said the union believes in “freedom of choice of care” when asked about whether she would support mandates.
While Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have been proven safe, there are ethical concerns with mandates because the vaccines are still under emergency use authorization, Dr. Wallace said. It’s one of the main reasons Sunrise isn’t requiring it. Once the vaccines are fully approved, however, the clinic might go for it.
“We can't say no, we wouldn't go there,” Dr. Wallace said. “We mandate other vaccines. Our employees have to get a flu shot and essentially everybody does.”