Chatham organizations share vaccine considerations, advice for employers

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As vaccine access expands in North Carolina, many Chatham employers have begun looking to get their workforces vaccinated as quickly as possible. To that end, several Chatham organizations came together for a webinar last Thursday to share some advice.

The webinar — called the COVID-19 Vaccine Briefing for Chatham Employers — addressed Group 3 vaccine eligibility, updated employers on Chatham’s vaccine rollout and offered legal and practical advice. The Chatham Economic Development Corporation, the county health department and the Chatham Chamber of Commerce organized it; speakers included Public Health Director Mike Zelek and Kathie Russell, who’s a managing partner at Russell & Associates.

Here are five key takeaways:

The Chatham County Public Health Department may not be getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine anytime soon.

The FDA recently approved Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine for Emergency Use Authorization last weekend. Shipments began arriving in North Carolina last Wednesday, but Zelek said the health department hasn’t received any — and likely wouldn’t at all before month’s end.

“We’re getting the Moderna vaccine right now,” Zelek said, “and the Johnson & Johnson (vaccine), I think, was sent primarily to these much larger-scale vaccination clinics. We don’t have it right now, but in the coming months, that could change.”

Employers: develop a vaccination plan.

First things first — organize a committee, Russell said; bring in your HR people and “different factions” of your company to develop effective strategies and responses to vaccinate your workforce.

“The committee can then serve as your central point of contact for your company program,” she said, “and they can direct traffic, assist employees so they have resources of where they can go get the vaccine, how to sign up, they can help them with places to go and things like that.”

Accommodate your employees.

If an employee had a vaccination appointment, consider giving them time off work, Zelek advised, both for their appointment and perhaps afterward.

Sometimes, people experience side effects, including arm soreness, headache and fatigue, Zelek added, though most experience them after receiving the second dose. They typically go away within a couple of days.

“If they do feel unwell after the second dose, it’s not because they got COVID,” he said. “It’s just the body developing an immune response to fight against COVID. Give them that flexible leave time so that they can take off work if needed (or) take off a day if they do need to.”

If you’re signing your employees up for appointments, be careful how you schedule them, Russell said.

“You could even consider staggering appointments within departments,” she said, “especially for that second dose so that you don’t have a big chunk of your workers out.”

Also be sure that you don’t inadvertently penalize your employees for getting vaccinated, she added; employees will be less likely to get vaccinated if they know they’ll be penalized for missing work if they’re sick the day after.

“At a minimum, make sure you’re not docking their pay if they have to take time off, depleting their PTO, or accounting the side-effect-related absences in any sort of disciplinary process,” Russell added. “Keep in mind also that some state and sick pay leave might even require you to provide paid time off — or at least protected unpaid leave — to these employees as they recover from vaccine side effects.”

Mount an education campaign about the vaccines.

Demonstrate that you trust the vaccine, Zelek said, and talk to your employees about your vaccination experience, if you can; be honest about any side effects or reactions you had.

Many concerns surround side effects or allergic reactions to the vaccines. Zelek said allergic reactions are rare; they happen less than five times per 1 million doses administered, and medical workers can also treat any reactions easily.

“That’s the kind of information you want to get to your employees,” Russell added.

A lot of misinformation has been circling around the internet, Russell said, so make sure your employees receive accurate information from trusted sources.

“Bring in someone like Mike,” she suggested. “Bring other local resources because studies show that the more they understand, the more likely they are to get it and that they take much more seriously information that they get from local healthcare workers and people like Mike, than they do from political sources or things like that.”

Encourage your employers to get vaccinated; don’t require it.

In December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clarified that employers can require their employees to get vaccinated as a condition of working on-site. So legally, Russell said, you can require your employees to get vaccinated — but that decision brings numerous legal and practical considerations that might not make the mandate worth it.

“Encouraging instead of mandating avoids legal issues for you,” Russel added. “... If the employee does not comply, you have to engage in an individual analysis of whether an exception to that policy is needed to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) or religious objection under Title VII.”

A vaccine mandate also brings you another legal risk: Since each vaccine only has Emergency Use Authorization, vaccine providers are required to tell recipients “to the extent practicable” that they have the option to refuse the injection.

“As you can see, that sets you up for a conundrum there because that could raise a concern that you’re mandating it and then your employee goes to get it and they’re told you can refuse it,” she said. “So they could potentially bring a lawsuit for some sort of public policy violation, given those emergency use guidelines.”

Beyond legal risks, the mandate also poses practical risks: What do you do about those employees who refuse?

“So if half of your workplace refuses, you don’t want to let half your workplace go,” Russell said. “But you have to have a policy because then you can’t require someone to get it and then let someone else do it with no repercussions. So these are all the reasons that it just makes it really a legal quagmire for you to mandate the vaccine.”

The full webinar will be posted online by the Chatham EDC in the coming days.

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at


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