When Freedman Seating Co. heard manufacturing industry employees would be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, the company wanted to hold an event to distribute doses at work, much like it does with flu shots.
Getting access to a supply of COVID-19 shots, though, was a struggle for the Chicago-based company. Pharmacies and other companies that could administer the shots were overwhelmed with requests and wanted Freedman Seating to determine the exact number of doses needed, information the company didn’t have at the time, said marketing manager John-Paul Paonessa.
Instead, the city reserved spots for the company at mass vaccination sites and employees helped colleagues navigate the registration process. About half of 630 employees have been vaccinated, but Freedman Seating still pursued an on-site vaccination event and recently scheduled one for about 100 employees in early May, Paonessa said.
The more people who are vaccinated, the more comfortable employees may feel returning to “some sort of normalcy,” he said.
“As easy as we can make it, that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.
A limited supply of doses and overwhelming demand meant some companies deemed essential in early phases of the vaccine rollout were initially unable to bring doses to their workforces, especially smaller employers without in-house medical staff.
With access to vaccines improving, an even broader swath of companies may consider hosting vaccination clinics. Some health departments say employers are losing interest as workers find appointments on their own. But that, along with improving vaccine supply, could make things easier for companies still trying to secure vaccines.
“It’s still not that easy to get an appointment,” said Betsy Matthews, chief financial officer at Corporate Wellness Partners, which has worked with employers to offer workplace vaccinations in Lake County, Ill. “Everybody doesn’t have time to sit around and wait for appointments to open online, or go when there is an available appointment time.”
In a White House speech Wednesday, President Joe Biden urged employers to make sure work doesn’t keep people from getting vaccinated by providing time, with pay, to get the shot, and announced a tax credit for businesses with fewer than 500 workers to help cover the cost of paid leave.
Companies say workplace clinics are an even easier way to get employees vaccinated quickly. It saves people the trouble of tracking down individual appointments, especially those who can’t scour websites during the workday, and may help vaccine-hesitant workers grow more comfortable as they see co-workers lining up for shots.
The state has not offered vaccines directly to employers. In an email, the Illinois Department of Public Health said it is developing a plan to distribute doses to employers that have registered to be vaccine providers. But so far, it has focused on getting doses to providers that could reach as many people as possible, like local and county health departments, hospitals and pharmacies.
Employers have reached out to those groups for shots. But in the absence of a coordinated statewide approach, health departments adopted their own strategies for working with companies, particularly while eligibility and doses were limited. In many cases, a company’s ability to hold a workplace clinic has depended on the size of its workforce, when it applied, and how the provider interpreted guidelines surrounding essential workers.
Several health departments have given large companies with in-house medical staff doses they could administer themselves, including Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., which began vaccinating employees and contractors April 7, and Deerfield, Ill.-based health care company Baxter.
Baxter had vaccinated about half of its front-line manufacturing employees at a clinic at its Round Lake, Ill., site by early April and said it would continue vaccinating employees as supply and eligibility expands.
Other companies needed to find a partner to administer doses. Some health departments organized workplace clinics for a few companies; others connected employers to pharmacies, medical clinics or occupational health companies that distribute vaccines.
When essential workers first became eligible, the Chicago and DuPage County health departments said there simply weren’t enough vaccines or providers to match demand from companies.
“There weren’t a lot of providers who had the capacity to work with employers while they were also vaccinating seniors and health care workers,” said Tamara Mahal, vaccine operations lead for the city of Chicago.
Of the 1,213 mobile vaccination events the Chicago Department of Public Health conducted as of April 10, the vast majority were in long-term care settings, senior housing and shelters. But the city also held events at 46 workplaces, focusing on large employers with front-line essential workers, including those sites that had experienced outbreaks or had a high exposure risk, Mahal said. That number doesn’t include companies that found a provider on their own.
As the vaccine supply increases, the city will have “more flexibility” to support workplace clinics, she said. The number of providers has also grown significantly.
The Will County Health Department said it has less capacity to run workplace events now that the county has more mass vaccination sites, but they’re still happening, said emergency response coordinator Katie Weber. The county is handing more companies off to Joliet-based KodoCare Pharmacy, which has been conducting workplace vaccination clinics.
Earlier in the vaccine rollout, the department brought teams of nurses to companies with employees eligible in phase 1b that had at least 100 employees, including WeatherTech and school bus company First Student, Weber said. One company, Barr Freight System, invited neighboring companies to send employees so it would have enough people to qualify.
Health departments and vaccine providers said they followed the guidelines for prioritizing essential workers, though some took different approaches to deciding who was essential.
The Lake County Health Department tried to make sure only front-line workers, rather than those able to work from home, as well as employees over 65, got doses before eligibility expanded, though it relied on the honor system, said Buddy Hargett, the department’s COVID-19 response coordinator.
Nosco, a subsidiary of Deerfield-based Holden Industries that makes packaging for some COVID-19 vaccines, said Lake County supplied doses and occupational health company Corporate Wellness Providers ran clinics in conference rooms in Nosco’s facilities in Gurnee and Waukegan in mid-March.
President Craig Curran said all of its roughly 500 Lake County employees were essential, as were 15 salespeople who traveled to the area to get the shots. The company doesn’t have employees who work from home full-time, he said.
“We wanted to get everyone. All our people are essential to our process, and we’re trying to keep everyone healthy,” Curran said.
Will County didn’t ask companies considered essential to differentiate between essential and nonessential workers. “If we went to your business, we took your employees,” Weber said.
When vaccines were still limited to essential workers and those who qualified because of their age or a health condition, a company didn’t need to fall in the category considered essential to obtain them for eligible workers. Hedge fund Citadel worked with Innovative Express Care to vaccinate employees who qualified as part of a round of vaccinations the health clinic said it conducted for nonprofits, schools, factories and other local employers in February and March. That’s before Citadel would have been considered essential as a financial services company in phase 1c.
Citadel spokesman Zia Ahmed said all vaccinated employees were eligible to get the vaccine at the time but declined to comment on how many employees were involved.
Innovative Express Care focused on food pantries, schools and nursing homes before opening appointments to companies, spokeswoman Jennifer Monasteri said in an email. When companies reached out, Innovative first considered whether the company had eligible employees, then whether Innovative had enough vaccines and was able to schedule the event, she said.
“As a medical provider, our goal was to get vaccines to as many eligible patients as possible,” she said.
The city health department stopped providing vaccines to Innovative last month after alleging it knowingly misallocated doses meant for Chicago Public Schools employees. The company has denied the claims and said the vaccines Citadel received were not intended for CPS.
While the city and DuPage County health departments said they expect to get more calls from employers, Hargett said demand in Lake County has slowed considerably as more community sites have opened and appointments are more available.
That could make it easier for those still trying to organize on-site clinics, including Ford, which recently announced plans to vaccinate employees in Michigan, Ohio and Missouri, and Chicago-based S&C Electric, where about half the company’s employees are vaccinated.
Only 31% of human resources leaders surveyed by research and consulting firm Gartner in mid-March planned to help bring vaccines to employees, down from 42% in late January.
“Some still want to because they think it’s the right thing to do or they made a promise to employees. Others are saying it’s rolling out much faster than expected, so they no longer feel as much need to step into that gap,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research in Gartner’s human resources practice.
Ferrara Candy Co. is making plans for a clinic for corporate employees at its office in The Old Post Office in Chicago.
The company initially focused on working with city and suburban health departments to get doses to workers in its manufacturing plants, starting with its Forest Park facility in February, said Sarah Kittel, Ferrara’s vice president of corporate affairs. Cook County Health Department provided doses and Chicago Internal Medicine Practice and Research ran the clinic.
Ferrara temporarily shut down a production line “in rare cases” to ensure employees could get shots, and most were scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays to give employees time to manage side effects if needed, Kittel said.
If research shows people will need COVID-19 booster shots to remain protected, companies will likely want to integrate them into annual flu clinics — a much more common company program, Gartner’s Kropp said. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has said people will “likely” need a third dose within a year of being vaccinated and may need annual doses.