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Firms get ready for vaccine

As U.S. health authorities near emergency approvals for the first covid-19 vaccines, companies are taking some of the first concrete steps to prepare for the unprecedented and complex task of distributing hundreds of millions of doses to the American workforce.

Ford has procured deep-freezers to store vaccines at some of its factories. Sanderson Farms, a top poultry producer, will administer vaccines to employees at health clinics erected at its facilities, and the CEO pledges to get inoculated on video to encourage workers to do the same. Activision Blizzard plans to cover vaccination costs for employees and their immediate families. Several industries are lobbying to get their workers near the front of the line after the first doses go to health-care workers and nursing home residents.

More actions will come once federal and state officials set guidelines to steer how and when everyone from teachers to truckers will eventually gain access to the shots in coming months.

“That’s really when the question is: How do employers play this?” said Bunny Ellerin, director of the Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management Program at Columbia Business School. “They absolutely are going to have to deal with this if they want to have healthy employees” and one day return to a more normal work life.

The answers — whether they come from companies or government — are all part of the effort to save lives and get people back to work. Since the pandemic struck, there are 9.8 million fewer jobs and the U.S. economy has shrunk by 3.5% from its previous peak.

And once the logistics are figured out, another touchy subject awaits: how to get workers to actually take the shots.

The food industry is among the most eager to get priority for its workers, after thousands caught the virus earlier this year at meat and food plants. Such crews should receive vaccinations after health-care employees and those in long-term care, the lobbying group North American Meat Institute said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has likewise urged federal health officials to grant early vaccine access for essential workers at grocery stores, meatpacking and food-processing facilities. Conagra Brands said it is working through a trade association to get priority for its essential facility workers.

Delta Air Lines hasn’t decided whether to require vaccinations before employees or passengers can fly, though it will strongly encourage its workers to get the shots, Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian said on NBC’s “Today” show last week.

“Airline employees are front-line workers and will be given priority as front-line workers to access to the vaccine,” Bastian said. “Myself, I can’t wait to get vaccinated.”

Other companies with primarily office-based personnel are taking a more passive approach.

“Our plan will be to get the access to the vaccine as fast as possible for our employees, but consistent with what society has in terms of priorities,” Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan said in November. “It’s incumbent on us and all private industry to make sure that we let society work through what it needs on this thing, get it in high-risk people, get it in the first responders.”

Banks, which critics have long targeted for big bonuses paid out to executives and traders, were wary of crafting plans to vaccinate white-collar workers early. Adding to their hesitation: They’ve spent months publicly touting how well their employees are performing in the remote environment. Internally, there’s also a desire to show support for front-line branch workers, many of whom have still had to appear in-person.

Several companies said they needed clearer direction from state and federal authorities before deciding how they’ll make a vaccine available to their workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee has recommended that states first vaccinate health-care workers and long-term-care residents. The advisory group will finalize recommendations for using specific vaccines only after the Food and Drug Administration authorizes their use. Moreover, those guidelines are non-binding, meaning states can ultimately decide how to use the doses they receive.

Essential workers are likely to be vaccinated soon after health-care workers and long-term-care residents. Data show these workers are at an increased risk for catching the virus and vaccinating them is important to protect the people and the work they provide, according to the CDC committee.

Some employers are coordinating directly with pharmacy benefit managers and vendors about vaccine distribution, said Elizabeth Mitchell, CEO of the Pacific Business Group on Health, whose members include large companies and public employers. Most employers say they’ll strongly encourage getting the shots but not require them, Mitchell said. “The companies have aligned incentives here: They want their workforce to be healthy,” she said.

Hospitals similarly plan to offer covid-19 vaccines to their employees but will not mandate them. Doing so may only deepen mistrust among an already skeptical public, executives say. Instead, they will rely on leaders within the hospital to get vaccinated to set an example for the rest of their ranks.

“The way I portray this to people is the following: This is your ticket out of the pandemic. This is how we end it, we end it with a vaccine,” said Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention at Advocate Aurora Health Inc., a health system with 26 hospitals across Illinois and Wisconsin.

Smithfield Foods, the biggest global pork producer, said it would devote space in its ultra-low-temperature freezers to store vaccines. Sanderson Farms, the No. 3 American chicken producer, has established health clinics at all of its locations where the company intends to administer vaccines when they become available while CEO Joe Sanderson will take the vaccine on video.

Ford has purchased a dozen ultra-cold freezers to store vaccines and offer them to its employees globally once they become available. The company is still studying how to best offer a voluntary vaccination program, which will look different depending on what’s needed at its facilities globally, said Kelli Felker, a company spokeswoman.

“Our initial emphasis is on essential workers at our manufacturing plants, warehouses, workplace-dependent employees and employees who are required to travel,” she said.

Orders for specialty deep-freezers needed to store covid-19 vaccines at arcticlike temperatures have been pouring in at So-Low Environmental Equipment Co. The closely held company in Cincinnati recently booked nearly 10% of its annual sales in a single day, said Dan Hensler, vice president of sales and marketing.

The company has been working overtime every weekday and all day on Saturdays to fulfill skyrocketing demand from hospitals, county health departments and pharmacies, and even small, independent drugstores — many of which never needed a deep-freezer until now. In some ways, the experience has revealed how communication from authorities about vaccine distribution has been lacking, Hensler said.

“These people were calling up and ordering things and they didn’t really know what they were ordering. They’ve seen the guidelines about how their vaccines needed to be stored, but there was never good direction from above, even to us,” he said. “We took chances and built up inventory over the summer. We could’ve done double if someone had told us what to expect.”

One area where lack of information has confounded companies that are willing and able to help involves the transportation of the vaccines being produced by Pfizer and Moderna — concoctions that require ultra-cold temperatures.

Mike Kucharski said his JKC Trucking near Chicago hasn’t yet been contacted about any refrigerated vaccine cargo even though it’s been helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies distribute medical supplies, protective gear, blood and human plasma for the pandemic response since March. The company, owned with his father, John, has about 250 trucks.

“It’s going to be a new commodity that wasn’t in the market before,” he said. “There’s going to be an instant lack of equipment” capable of maintaining super-low temperatures.

And over at Prime Inc., a Springfield, Mo.-based freight and logistics company with some 6,500 owned or contracted trucks, big clients worry about capacity.

“We have had several of our big customers reach out and say ‘Is this going to be a problem for us?'” said Jim Guthrie, director of operations. But that will depend ultimately on how many trucks are needed, he said, and “I just don’t know the answer to that.”

Logistics executives working with the federal government to distribute the earliest vaccines downplay the potential for strain.

The vaccines are being transported in special shipping boxes designed to maintain cold temperatures for 10 days, Wes Wheeler, chief executive officer of Healthcare Logistics at United Parcel Service Inc., said at a White House event last week. And Richard Smith, president of the Americas for FedEx Corp.’s Express unit, said his company and its competitors have plenty of capacity to deliver vaccines via air freight.

“That is a huge myth that’s out there,” Smith said at the event.

For small businesses, planning for distributing the vaccines is hard not only because of the unknowns in guidelines but because they are already strained during the pandemic. That could put them behind big organizations in accessing the vaccines.

“They obviously don’t have a lot of cash to go out and buy freezers,” said David Chase, vice president of national outreach at Small Business Majority. The trade group represents more than 80,000 employers nationwide, many of whom have fewer than 10 employees. “We want to make sure that the distribution is equitable and big businesses aren’t favored over small businesses.”

While it’s still early, it’s already clear that companies will face resistance to a vaccine from some members of the workforce. A push by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and other carmakers to reopen factories earlier during the pandemic made some employees question the company on health issues, friction that could spill over to a vaccine, said Mervin White, a quality auditor at Fiat Chrysler’s Ram truck plant in Sterling Heights, Mich.

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“People in the plant already feel like we were drug back like lab rats,” White said. “Is it really about safety, or is it about making bank, or making money?”

Fiat Chrysler said a team that includes medical professionals is studying the most effective approach for distributing vaccines to employees when they become available.

Toyota Motor Corp. is considering how to handle employees who may refuse to take a coronavirus vaccine. The company does suspect that’ll be the case for some and plans to respond flexibly, spokesman Scott Vazin said.

“We aren’t investing in refrigeration because we don’t want to take that away from front-line workers and those truly in need,” Vazin said. With wide availability of a vaccine not expected until spring, “we’re still focused on prevention.”

Information for this article was contributed by Lananh Nguyen, Ed Ludlow, Jordyn Holman, John Tozzi, Carolina Gonzalez, Keith Naughton, David Welch, Mary Schlangenstein, Gabrielle Coppola, Angelica LaVito, Olga Kharif and Yueqi Yang of Bloomberg News.

The Ford Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn, Mich., on May 18, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Emily Elconin.

The Ford Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn, Mich., on May 18, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Emily Elconin.

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