It could be just a matter of time before some employers start requiring their workers to get COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, now that boosters are open to all adults, experts say.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that it would allow any adult who got a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get a booster shot. Previously, only certain groups of people were eligible for boosters, including those who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The decision followed mounting evidence that protection from the initial shots wanes over time, and that boosters can restore it. It also came amid rising COVID-19 case numbers across the U.S.
Experts say that employers won’t likely start requiring boosters immediately, but they could see it happening in coming months, especially if COVID-19 surges through the winter.
There may come a point at which “the powers that be say you’re no longer (fully) vaccinated if your shot is ‘x’ months old,” said Aaron Goldstein, a partner in the labor and employment group at Dorsey & Whitney in Chicago. ”I think it’s going to pose some really interesting challenges for employers.”
A number of Chicago-area employers have vaccine mandates for workers, including all the major hospital systems and United Airlines. Deerfield-based Walgreens requires employees in its support and corporate offices to be vaccinated or tested weekly.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration released rules in early November requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure workers were vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19. But a federal appeals court blocked that rule, and the issue is expected to continue to make its way through the courts.
A representative for Walgreens declined to comment on whether it would expand its mandate to include boosters, and United did not respond to a request for comment.
But Loyola Medicine may consider eventually requiring its 10,000 employees to get boosters, said Dr. Richard Freeman, regional chief clinical officer. Loyola was the first hospital system in the Chicago area to announce, in July, that it would require shots for its workers.
About 98% of Loyola’s workers got vaccinated, with most of the rest getting exemptions, Freeman said. Fewer than 10 employees parted ways with Loyola over the vaccines, and most of those 10 resigned, he said.
“I think, at some point, maybe after the first of the year, we will consider saying, ‘OK, now it’s time to get your booster,’” Freeman said. “What we’re trying to do here is protect our workers and protect our patients from the virus being spread, so if you look at it that way, I think the evidence is becoming clear that without the booster, you are at higher risk of acquiring it or spreading it.”
Other employers aren’t planning to mandate boosters for now, but are watching the issue closely.
ClubExpress, a Schaumburg company with 29 employees, mandated vaccines for its workers before they started returning to the office in June. But the company won’t require boosters for the time being, said Dan Ehrmann, president and CEO of ClubExpress, which provides a cloud-based platform to help clubs and associations run their operations.
The initial doses still seem to provide some protection, and requiring boosters, at this point, seems a bit intrusive, Ehrmann said. But that doesn’t mean the company might not change its rules in the future, he said.
“I think it will depend a lot on the progress of COVID itself,” Ehrmann said. “We could be living with this for a long time, and I imagine our policy will have to evolve.”
Many Chicago-area colleges and universities have also mandated vaccines for their workers, but have not yet moved to require boosters.
“We strongly encourage everyone eligible to get the appropriate booster shot and will continue to monitor the scientific and clinical data as well as all local, state, and federal public health guidance,” said Adrienne Nazon, a spokeswoman for the University of Illinois System, in an email.
Many employers may wait to take action until federal or state governments change their definitions of “fully vaccinated” to mean people who’ve received boosters, Goldstein said. If and when that happens, employers may feel more comfortable mandating third shots.
Israel already has such a policy, generally requiring people to get boosters if they’re six months past their second doses, in order to get so-called Green Passes, which allow them admission into many public spaces.
It’s likely that, initially, many employers will simply encourage their workers to get booster shots, rather than require it, said Amy Blaisdell, a partner in the Greensfelder labor and employment group. They may offer incentives to workers who get boosters, such as time off or money, just as they did earlier this year when vaccines became widely available, she said.
“I think they may want to revisit a voluntary program for getting boosters to see how that goes,” Blaisdell said. “Then I think we’ll start to see, if that’s not successful, employers begin implementing mandates, maybe more in the spring or summer of next year.”
Employers who want to mandate boosters may face a number of challenges.
At this point, many adults are not yet six months past their last shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, and people got their second doses at different times. It’s also possible that some workers who were vaccinated the first time around might resist getting boosters because of their reactions to those first shots. Many people experienced flu-like symptoms for a day or two after their initial doses.
But it’s unlikely those people would be able to get medical exemptions based on that alone, Blaisdell said. Generally, someone must have a a medical condition that would qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act as a disability or a significant health contraindication to the vaccines to qualify for a medical exemption, she said.
Companies must consider a host of legal issues as they contemplate whether to require boosters, as well as examine their own resources and cultures, said Dr. Jan Berger, medical director for the Midwest Business Group on Health.
“Nobody is making these decisions lightly,” she said.