With full federal approval of one of the three COVID-19 vaccines being used across the nation, state leaders and public health officials are optimistic that more people will finally get the shot after months of holding out. And businesses are now entering into previously difficult terrain and are requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for their workers, and even in some cases for their customers and guests.
On Aug. 23, the federal Food and Drug Administration gave full authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccinations are under review for full approval and are still being administered under an emergency use authorization.
“The general school of thought,” Gov. Phil Murphy said earlier in August, was that “if the ‘emergency use’ words are dropped and this is fully authorized, there’s an expectation that there will be a bump in the numbers of folks that are willing to get vaccinated.”
“I don’t think there’s really any hard agreement on how big that bump would be,” he said.
When the vaccinations were first rolled out, demand outstripped supply through the early spring. Now with vaccination rates lagging and most COVID-19 restrictions still lifted, the highly contagious delta variant spread widely among unvaccinated segments of the population. Hospitalizations and daily cases have risen to their highest levels in months, almost exclusively among those without the shot, according to top public health officials and experts.
On the day the FDA issued full authorization, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said it should help chip away at “those who have been hesitant to get vaccinated.”
“Having it fully authorized by the FDA means that there is no excuse for people to say this hadn’t been fully vetted and tested,” added Stanley Weiss, an epidemiologist and professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “We’ve had hundreds of millions of vaccine shots by now, compared to any other drug that we’ve licensed.”
“The short-term observation in terms of efficacy is so overpowering,” he continued. “Lots of people giving these arguments that it was experimental – they can’t say that anymore.”
The day of the FDA approval, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce announced that its staff must be fully vaccinated and that attendees to the organizations events also had to get the shot or show proof of a negative test. Chamber CEO Tom Bracken said he felt that the full FDA approval was just the impetus many business owners needed to enact a full-on requirement. He said the response from staff and member organizations has been positive and receptive.
“It takes one more piece of uncertainty away from vaccinations,” he said in a phone interview. “I think it will prompt more companies to mandate vaccinations, either with staff, or in their venues.”
Bracken suggested that “[p]eople who were against vaccinations for whatever reasons, this is not going to change their minds. The people who were just a little bit concerned about lack of full approval, this takes that away from them.”
State and federal law generally allows employers to require something like the COVID-19 vaccine for their staff, and to collect data on the proof of vaccination status. “However, until we receive further guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, we expect that employers will continue to be required to honor legally cognizable exemptions, such as disability-related and sincerely-held religious belief exemptions,” said Frank Custode, a partner and chair of the employment practice at the Roseland law firm Curcio Mirzaian Sirot. “It would be helpful for employers to have further guidance on the scope of the exemptions and any cognizable basis for denying any exemption requests.”
Many of the state’s largest employers are also members of the Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, and several of which NJBIZ contacted a month ago about whether they were requiring vaccines had not changed their positions or if they did, it was not as a result of the FDA decision.
New Brunswick-based drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, for example, announced on Aug. 16 that it would require its staff and contractors to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 4.
Murphy on Aug. 23 announced that all state workers, K-12 teachers and school employees and staff along with employees at the state’s public universities had until Oct. 18 to get vaccinated. The decision was not the result of the FDA approval, he maintained.
United Airlines, which operates a major hub at Newark Liberty International Airport, announced on Aug. 5 that all of its workers must be vaccinated by October. And many large concert venues and performing arts centers, including Starland Ballroom, the Bergen and New Jersey performing arts centers, and Live Nation which operates BB&T Pavilion and PNC Bank Arts Center, are requiring the shot for patrons, as is Tech United for its Propelify Innovation Festival.
Those decisions were made in July and August, weeks before the FDA decision.
Nonetheless, a number of employers went public with their own mandates after the FDA approval. CVS Pharmacy on Aug. 23 announced an Oct. 31 deadline for staff to get vaccinated if they work in any of the corporate offices or for “patient-facing roles” such as nurses and pharmacists. New hires in those jobs as of Sept. 15 also must get the shot, while retail pharmacists have until Nov. 30. And on Aug. 24, Delta Airlines said it was levying a $200 monthly surcharge on health premiums for any unvaccinated staff.
Sylvia Twersky, an assistant professor at The College of New Jersey’s public health department, predicted that the FDA decision would not “move the needle with people and employers who are vaccine skeptics.”
“The final FDA approval may move some people and employers who were on the fence, especially combined with the delta variant surge in cases,” she said in an email.
Murphy said he felt differently: more employers were requiring the vaccine, and the delta variant had delayed their physical office reopenings. “[T]hose are two trends you’re seeing without question in the business community,” he said on Aug. 23.
Most employers are simply encouraging their staff to get the vaccine. This group includes Phillips 66; First Energy, the parent company of Jersey Central Power & Light; PSEG; Bank of America; accounting giant PwC; and grocery outlet Stop & Shop.
Camden-based Campbell Soup Co. is not mandating the vaccine but is requiring employees to notify human resources about their vaccination status. Prudential Financial in Newark is requiring its staff to get the shot in order to return to the offices.
These trends should push up vaccination rates, suggested Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist at Montclair State University.
“[F]rom an economic perspective, having more of your employees vaccinated reduces the risk of having a significant outbreak at your company and therefore you are less likely to have to shut down or have employees out sick,” she said in an email.