Despite new FDA approval, many Missouri employers hesitate to mandate vaccine

Employers seeking to get their workforce vaccinated now have more leeway in the fight against COVID-19. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration gave its full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The announcement is expected to give confidence to individuals and businesses hesitant to take the vaccines.

While experts say the announcement could spur more vaccine mandates from employers, many of Missouri’s largest private employers are still reluctant to make the shots mandatory.

“It’s an opportunity for an employer to tell employees, ‘Look, now it has full approval. That doesn’t happen accidentally,’” said Robert Gatter, a health care law professor at St. Louis University. “It’s an opportunity to essentially ask your employees to reevaluate their concerns.”

Employers were legally allowed to mandate vaccines before the FDA’s announcement, but
Gatter said full approval can help ease employee concerns about getting a vaccine.

The Pfizer vaccine was previously granted emergency-use authorization. Gatter said vaccines authorized for emergency use have the same safety standards as those given full FDA approval, despite public perception that they may be riskier. When a vaccine is fully approved, it means enough data has been collected to confirm it is effective.

“If you’re dealing with a whole lot of employees who are angry or frightened or want to leave because of a misperception about the safety of a vaccine you’re requiring, then that can be a problem,” Gatter said. “So I think this is an opportunity for employers, as well as others, to say, ‘Look, now it has full approval. Now it’s the same as the flu vaccine that we already require. Now it’s the same as something else we might require.’”

Companies can institute vaccine mandates in many ways with a wide range of consequences for failing to receive the shot. Some companies, like Clayton-based Centene, have soft vaccine mandates. Unvaccinated workers can remain employed, but they are subject to testing and mask requirements. Others, like St. Louis University and BJC HealthCare, have hard vaccine mandates, requiring employees without exemptions to get the shot or lose their jobs.

“Vaccines are good for business,” said Brendan Cosette, chief operating officer of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “They make other employees in the office more comfortable. It might make the public a lot more comfortable entering the establishment.”

Many major employers across Missouri are opting to encourage their workers to be vaccinated and continuing safety protocols despite the FDA’s approval. Car rental company Enterprise Holdings is only strongly recommending vaccination. Engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, which employs nearly 4,000 people across the state, is doing the same. So are Commerce Bank, which employs about 3,700 people, and supermarket chain Schnucks Markets, which has about 13,000 workers in Missouri.

Financial services company Wells Fargo, with over 5,000 workers in the state, and Shelter Insurance, with about 1,300 Missouri employees, are also not requiring vaccinations. Many of these workplaces still have mask policies and symptom checks in their offices and stores and have distributed information to their employees about where to get vaccinated.

“We know that there are a number of people that have been vaccinated and there are some who haven’t, and that’s certainly a personal choice and we have not mandated that,” said Shelter Insurance spokesperson Jay MacLellan.

Many major national employers have instituted vaccination requirements. After the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the Pentagon required inoculation for all active and reserved military personnel. Google and Facebook are requiring vaccination for any employees looking to return to the office. On Wednesday, Delta Air Lines announced unvaccinated employees must pay a $200 monthly insurance premium.

Cosette said many companies still hesitant to mandate vaccines could be concerned about losing workers in an already tight labor market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of job openings on the last business day of June was 10.1 million, the highest recorded since the survey began in 2002.

“I think there might be some hesitancy amongst employers, just because it’s so hard to find employees right now,” Cosette said.

Gatter said other businesses that have never required a vaccine before may feel uncomfortable doing so now.

“It seems like they’re crossing a threshold that they have never crossed before, but this is something that’s more transmissible and has greater risk of shutting down business,” Gatter said. “And it’s more likely to spread among employees if you’re bringing them into work now.”

Vaccine mandates can be an effective way of increasing vaccination by providing individuals with a deadline, Gatter said. He compared vaccines to a fire retardant used when fighting wildfires. As more trees become covered with fire retardant, a wildfire will eventually burn out because it runs out of fuel. But if only half of the trees are protected, the fire will continue to rage.

“Every unvaccinated person is fuel for this virus,” he said “and unlike wildfires that don’t then mutate into something worse, the longer we let the virus burn, the more we’re going to see that we create not a delta variant, but a gamma variant or an iota variant that might be able to get around what vaccines we have even better than the delta variant does.”

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