May 27, 2021

NIOSH Presenters Talk Workplace COVID-19 Vaccination

By Kay Bechtold

May 27, 2021—Leaders of the Essential Workers Team in CDC’s Vaccine Task Force provided an update on workplace COVID-19 vaccination during a session that aired on Tuesday morning as part of Virtual AIHce EXP 2021. Deputy Team Lead Kyle Moller, PhD, MSPH, REHS/RS, was joined by co-presenters Lisa J. Delaney, MS, CIH, who serves as the Essential Worker Team lead, and Michael Grant, ScD, an industrial hygienist in NIOSH’s Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch. The NIOSH team discussed the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as field and virtual assistance that NIOSH has provided directly to employers and other jurisdictions. Though the session was recorded in early May, Moller and Delaney joined attendees for a live chat, then fielded questions during a question-and-answer period after the presentation.

The Essential Workers Team focuses on efforts related to COVID-19 vaccination and essential workers, including disseminating information to improve vaccine confidence and supporting the implementation of vaccination strategies for these workers. Moller explained that the team has used four primary strategies: widely distributing vaccine information to workers and employers to increase vaccine confidence and acceptance, identifying the barriers and challenges of vaccinating essential workers, connecting partners and jurisdictions for vaccine implementation planning, and working with the Vaccine Task Force’s Disproportionately Affected Adult Populations Team to identify areas of overlap and possible collaboration. The Essential Workers Team includes subject matter experts from a variety of industry sectors as well as experts in surveillance, communication, and immunization.

Moller discussed several considerations and challenges related to vaccinating essential worker populations. For example, some workers may work in one state but live in another and have difficulty navigating residency requirements. Transient workers whose jobs involve interstate transportation may have difficulty getting a second dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. A great deal of coordination and planning may be required to take advantage of the timing of when workers are eligible to be vaccinated, Moller explained, so jurisdictions may want to consider using work sites to administer vaccines. Moller also stressed that some workers may have concerns about vaccine safety and that culturally appropriate vaccination information in multiple languages is necessary. But different groups prefer different methods of communication, he reminded conference attendees. For example, some groups might prefer radio while others would rather get information from print resources. And some groups rely on individuals like community leaders to serve as trusted sources.

“Some additional considerations are that rural areas have limited access to healthcare and health providers and may require targeted strategies for vaccine implementation,” Moller added. “And some missed days may occur due to post-vaccination side effects, especially the day after vaccination and especially after the second dose.”

Moller encouraged employers to make COVID-19 vaccination part of their workplace wellness programs and to consider offering free on-site COVID-19 vaccination at no charge and during work hours. Employers should also offer flexible paid leave policies for workers who may experience post-vaccination symptoms.

“Employers should also offer more than one chance for employees to get vaccinated,” Moller said. “Workers who are hesitant about getting vaccinated will become more confident if they see and know others who have gotten the vaccine.”

For employers that cannot host vaccination clinics at their workplaces, Moller suggested other steps they can take to encourage vaccination, including providing information to workers about where they can get the vaccine, establishing flexible human resources policies to allow employees to take paid leave to seek vaccination in their community, or supporting transportation to off-site COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

On the issue of vaccine mandates, Moller reminded AIHce attendees that CDC recommends that employers encourage COVID-19 vaccination and establish policies to make it as easy and convenient as possible for workers.

“Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests that employers can mandate vaccination, but they still must allow exemptions for medical conditions and sincerely held religious beliefs,” Moller said. “Ultimately, whether an employer requires or mandates vaccination is a matter of state or other applicable law.”

Following CDC’s release of new interim public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people on May 13, many occupational and environmental health and safety professionals who attended the session were understandably interested in vaccine-related developments from NIOSH. According to CDC’s new guidance, fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or socially distance in any setting, except where required by laws, rules, and regulations, including workplace guidance. Delaney stressed that there are a few exceptions that OEHS professionals should understand: first, the recently released recommendations do not apply to correctional facilities and homeless shelters, and individuals will still be required to wear masks on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation. In addition, the new guidance is intended to apply to non-healthcare settings. CDC has issued separate guidance for healthcare, she said.

NIOSH is currently working on updating its general business guidance to align with the recently released recommendations, Delaney told attendees during the live portion of the session. She mentioned that NIOSH recognizes that there will be vaccinated and unvaccinated workers in the workplace and plans to continue to recommend all the mitigation strategies to help protect the workforce. But the agency’s updated guidance will also align with “some of the updates for people who are vaccinated who don’t need to wear masks,” Delaney said.

The Essential Worker Vaccination Toolkit is available from CDC’s website, along with COVID-19 vaccination toolkits specific to other audiences such as healthcare professionals and pharmacists, long-term care facility staff, and education and childcare professionals.

Kay Bechtold is managing editor of The Synergist.