As pharmaceutical companies ramp up production and COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, employers are increasingly asking whether employees can get vaccinated at work.
The answer appears to vary among different county health departments. Kent County has been examining the idea for employers in certain sectors of the economy, while Ottawa County this month piloted onsite clinics for two large employers.
The larger health systems around Grand Rapids also are interested in doing onsite vaccinations for employers, although for now they are focused on operating and administering doses at vaccine clinics, including the mass West Michigan Vaccine Clinic at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids.
The limited availability of doses also remains a key barrier to directly approaching employers about vaccinations, officials say.
“At this time, Spectrum Health is focused on providing vaccinations through our established vaccine clinics, collaboratives and community vaccine clinics. We are open to exploring options, however, we are limited by current vaccine supplies,” Chad Tuttle, senior vice president of hospital operations for Spectrum Health West Michigan, said in a statement to MiBiz.
Spectrum Health partners with Mercy Health and the Kent County Health Department to operate the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic at DeVos Place, which has the capacity to administer 20,000 vaccinations daily, depending on the availability
Mercy Health told MiBiz that it “continues to work closely with (the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) and our local health departments to reach as many eligible patients as possible.”
“With a goal of making the vaccine accessible, we are developing plans to provide vaccines to patients nearby where they live and work. This includes partnering with organizations and businesses, while also utilizing our community health centers,” the health system said in a statement.
Metro Health-University of Michigan Health remains “open to the possibility of collaborating with employers to administer the vaccine if a stronger vaccine supply would become available.”
Growing interest, logistics
The Kent County Health Department has received inquiries from employers asking about onsite vaccine clinics for workers. So has the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, which is part of the 16-county West Michigan Vaccine Collaborative that includes employers, business organizations, health systems and local health departments.
When touring the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic at DeVos Place with employers, “This question comes up: ‘Hey, can you come to my facility?’” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs at the Grand Rapids Chamber.
The collaborative for now is referring employers to direct their employees to register for vaccines that are available at DeVos Place, smaller clinics operated by health systems and health departments, or at retailers such as Meijer Inc. and Rite Aid that are staffed to handle vaccines.
“They’re convenient in many ways to get folks through, so they’re focusing on the clinics first,” Johnston said.
There’s also “other logistical considerations” on top of the availability of doses, including manpower and staffing. Setting up an onsite clinic at a company also has to have a certain number of people “to make it worthwhile,” Johnston said.
The state last week expanded vaccine eligibility to include people age 50 and older who have a medical condition or disability and for their caregivers, plus guardians of special needs children. Vaccine eligibility opens further on March 22 to anyone 50 and older.
Going where it makes sense
As eligibility broadens into the spring, the Kent County Health Department has been considering doing onsite vaccine clinics at employers on a limited basis. They could come at employers in key industries with essential workers such as food processing facilities, and in instances where the workforce tends to have issues with transportation or language barriers, or have been more susceptible to outbreaks, said Kent County Health Department Director Dr. Adam London.
Any onsite clinics at employers would occur at locations “that make sense because of the vulnerability of their workforce and the nature of the work they do in close proximity,” London said.
“We may and probably will go onsite to help with locations like that. It’s a possibility, and we’re looking into the logistics of that,” London said. “We’re looking to what locations do offer some return on investment for our staff time and maybe it’s more efficient to handle it that way.”
But it’s hard to tell when that might occur, he said, and the Kent County Health Department isn’t planning onsite vaccinations on a broad scale.
“A lot of light industry and retail is not going to fall into that category,” he said. “We’re just going to broadly tell those places, ‘Here’s how you can encourage your staff to register and make sure that they have a link for the West Michigan vaccine clinic or local department or those kinds of places.”
The Ottawa County Department of Public Health recently piloted onsite clinics at two large employers that are in sectors within present eligibility criteria. The state opened vaccine eligibility March 2 to food processing and agricultural workers — two large sectors in Ottawa County.
The Department of Public Health hopes to expand the pilot to more employers as a way to increase access and convenience, depending on the supply of doses and availability of vaccinators, said Ottawa County Public Information Officer Kristina Wieghmink. The pilots were intended to “make sure we are able to go to them to get their employees vaccinated,” Wieghmink said.
“A lot of it’s convenience. We want to make sure that we’re making vaccines as accessible to people as possible,” she said. “We know that to reach our goal that at least 70 percent of our residents are vaccinated is going to take both methods, push and pull. We need to pull people into our mass vaccination clinics, but we need to go out to employers and make sure we make those connections for what’s more convenient for people.”
Ramping up doses
Since vaccinations began in late December following approval of the Pfizer Inc. vaccine, nearly 2.7 million COVID-19 doses had been administered in Michigan as of last week. More than 1.4 million went to people age 65 and older, and nearly 2 million were for people 50 and older, according to state data.
Nationally, nearly 32 million people had been fully vaccinated as of midweek last week, or about 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to a Washington Post database.
Now that three vaccines are on the market and producers are ramping up production — and a fourth may become available next month from Maryland-based Novavax Inc. — London expects weekly shipments of doses from the state to increase dramatically starting this week.
“We’re going to ramp up very quickly with our mass vaccine campaign,” he said.
That should allow Kent County to transition by summer from a mass vaccine effort to what London calls a “forever phase” in which vaccines are primarily available and administered at physician offices, local health departments and pharmacies, he said.
Even as that point approaches, London urges people to remain vigilant, continue using face masks, socially distancing, avoiding large social gatherings, and to wash their hands often.
“We’re getting very close to having this thing beat and it would be a shame if we had a setback at this late point in the game,” he said.