I attended the virtual Yale CEO Summit this week, hosted by the inimitable Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. One of his favorite exercises is to survey the CEO attendees on issues of the day. The most important finding from yesterday’s conclave was that 71 percent of the CEOs would be in favor of mandatory vaccination of their employees so that the world can recover more quickly from Covid-19.
The New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote about the topic earlier this week, “Business leaders are uniquely positioned. They can tell employees that they may return to the workplace only if they get vaccinated…it could create a competitive advantage for a service like Uber if the company said all of its drivers were vaccinated…Some companies could even require their customers to be vaccinated, for example an airline where only passengers who were vaccinated could fly on the planes...the Business Roundtable should get its members to sign a joint commitment to mandating vaccinations to help prevent a backlash against individual companies.”
I got another view from Dr. Steven Corwin, CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He said yesterday on Bloomberg TV that roughly 30 percent of his employees are “not sure” about taking the vaccine. “Communities of color have long been experimented on, so they need to be convinced. We have a vigorous educational effort to make sure people understand the safety of the vaccine and the risk/benefit of the vaccine versus getting the disease itself. And we are embarking on that [effort].” Dr. Corwin is in line to get the vaccine at the end of January but said he would get it earlier than that if his staff wanted the reassurance that the CEO of the hospital was willing to take it. “I’m game to do it…I think it’s safe, effective and necessary,” he noted.
I discussed the CEO Summit finding with Dr. David Nabarro, World Health Organization Special Envoy for Covid-19, my frequent discussion partner over the past nine months. He said, “Personally I am against mandatory vaccination. I think it neither right nor productive to force people to take the shot. I am also against unilateral action by employers: decisions on vaccination policy should be based on dialogue, and agreements reached, between employers and employees.”
Dr. Nabarro went on to say, “The priority now is to secure high-level political agreement and necessary funding to enable everyone in our world to be vaccinated as soon as effective and safe vaccines have been approved. This will include plans for digital health passports, which warranty vaccination or recent Covid tests. A central part will be well-devised and sensitive responses to vaccine hesitancy. Remember, this is all about building people’s trust as well as maintaining public health.”
I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of compulsory vaccination, at least at this moment in the pandemic. We should first try to persuade highest-risk employees, then some of whom are feeling young and immortal, others who are carrying historical burdens starting with Tuskegee and including many other incidents of bias in medical product testing and still others who are fearing the worst about the politicization of public health. We will prompt a backlash among employees who feel cornered after being locked down or working on the front lines with inadequate protections.
We have a serious Info-demic, in which mainstream media is seen as politicized and chasing clicks, while social media is a stew of disinformation. This is why the information and education campaign must be given a chance. And as the vaccine becomes available to more people over the coming months there will be more evidence to make the case for its effectiveness. There is a mandate for companies to educate their employees about the various vaccine options (mRNA versus traditional, one-shot or two). There must be detailed context provided on clinical trials conducted for each vaccine, the length and breadth of the trial, the ethnic background, age and sex of the participants. There must be a serious discussion of the side effects, including allergic reactions. And business should cooperate with the Ad Council, which will shortly be breaking a mass media campaign on vaccination, featuring ordinary citizens and celebrities who will protect each other by taking the jab.
The number one task for every Chief Communications Officer must be the provision of credible information that allows individual employees to make rational decisions about vaccination. ‘My employer’ is the most trusted institution; business must not squander its hard-earned trust gains by looking for short-term solutions to boost sales. We are better than that.
Richard Edelman is CEO.