If you work at UnitedHealth Group, the company won't force you to get a COVID-19 vaccination. But the company tries hard to make it easy to get the shot.
UnitedHealth gives workers paid time off to get vaccinated and more paid leave if they suffer vaccine side effects.
It matches eligible employees with vaccination opportunities that it hears about from state and local health departments.
Equally important, in a country where three in 10 Americans still balk at getting the shot needed to overcome a worldwide pandemic, UnitedHealth offers employees in-house education that address "vaccination hesitancy."
Most of Minnesota's biggest companies do not require employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations. But like thousands of businesses across the country, they have pushed COVID inoculations to the top of their agendas. Collectively, across every business sector, American corporations have largely accepted an integral role in the success of the vaccination effort.
Mary Kaul-Hottinger, the senior vice president of human resources at Minnesota-based CHS, spoke for thousands of personnel professionals when she noted: "Encouraging our employees to get the vaccine is one of the critical tools allowing us to move to the next normal."
In that spirit, CHS, which operates primarily in rural areas in multiple states, is exploring how it might offer its facilities as vaccination sites when vaccine "distribution meets demand."
Examples of corporate cooperation in vaccine distribution abound.
Target Corp. not only provides time off to get vaccinated, it pays employees up to $15 each way for Lyft rides to vaccination sites.
General Mills executives have shared their plans to get vaccinated with their workforce, hoping to inspire employees to follow the example.
Best Buy produces a regular series of videos in English and Spanish that features its medical director, Dr. Daniel Grossman, an emergency-room physician at Mayo Clinic, talking about the safety and effectiveness of COVID vaccines.
The Business Roundtable (BRT) is a national group of chief executives including those from Minnesota-based 3M, Ameriprise Financial, Best Buy, C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Land O'Lakes, Medtronic, Target and U.S. Bank. BRT recently paid tribute to private business involvement in the COVID vaccination program by announcing a $50 million "Move the Needle" advertising and education campaign. The campaign hopes to "build vaccine confidence and uptake among Americans, especially those who are hesitant to receive the vaccine."
The reluctance of a significant number of people to get a COVID shot puts the vaccination effort at risk, public health specialists warn. The current pandemic bears all the challenges of past global outbreaks of a new deadly virus.
But in the U.S. it also comes with misinformation about its breadth and severity provided by former President Donald Trump, said Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, a physician who teaches in the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. While Trump eventually fast-tracked vaccine development, he did not develop a national vaccine distribution network. He also spent months downplaying the seriousness of the COVID threat, including minimizing the need for — and sometimes mocking — mask-wearing, social distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings.
"The government practiced a pandemic response for years," Wurtz explained. But in those plans, "no one anticipated a federal government that didn't take a leadership role. There never has been a vaccine rollout like this: 300 million people needing to be vaccinated with a stuttering supply chain."
To have leaders say things "with vehemence that were untrue" sowed distrust at a time when trust was most needed, she continued. The consequences of the confusion and confrontation continue to reverberate in vaccination participation. This makes business' role in supporting vaccination vital.
"We desperately need to get the majority of employers on board," Wurtz said. "People spend more time at work than at most other places. Many people respect their employers. We're not getting back to normal until people get vaccinated."
During a press briefing late last month, President Joe Biden's administration touted an effort with the business community that White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response Andy Slavitt told reporters would "enlist the full force of the private sector," and represented a call to action. One key focus of the partnership, which includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, was to "reduce barriers to vaccinations," Slavitt said at the time.
The situation is one where "interests align," for both the Biden administration and the business community, said Myles Shaver, a professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota.
"If this is another avenue in which there can be this communication effort of the promotion of vaccines, it's all the better for everyone," Shaver added.
National trade groups that represent virtually all of Minnesota's large and medium-size businesses have put aside other agendas to address COVID vaccination. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the nation's most powerful groups, went all in on conquering COVID months ago and just announced a next step. Called the Rally for Recovery Commitment, the program aims to provide member businesses with ideas and resources "to encourage masking, providing vaccination information to employees, paid time off for employees to get vaccinated, and communicating the importance of vaccines in the local community."
The chamber's web-based COVID-related resources have drawn 15 million views. An initiative that has provided 27 virtual events to help businesses deal with COVID have drawn 25 million views.
Minnesota companies in the health care sector try to engage customers and patients, as well as employees.
Across its giant web of insurance clients, care providers and logistics specialists, UnitedHealth makes vaccine appointments for clients and provides a national ZIP code-based Vaccine Resource Locator. It gives a "vaccine confidence tool kit" to its partners and offers "vaccine confidence clinical empathy training to health care providers."
Providers from UnitedHealth's Optum division have vaccinated more than 250,000 people, the company said.
Ecolab, which sells cleaning products for sterile environments such as hospitals, offers tips to COVID vaccination sites, Ecolab hygiene specialist Linda Homan said.
"We have a role that when people get there, everything is done to make sure nobody gets sick," Homan said.
At Mayo Clinic, "vaccine distribution has involved almost every team," spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo said. This included inoculation site set up, vaccine storage and shipments for the overall national program.
To increase staff participation in vaccinations, the clinic surveyed its staff ahead of distribution to identify concerns. It followed up more recently at its southern sites to find out why people "had not yet opted in."
Reluctance to vaccines is nothing new, said the University of Minnesota's Wurtz. So several new business-based initiatives from the Chamber of Commerce, UnitedHealth and Mayo aim to sell the safety and need for inoculation to underserved groups such as Black and Latino communities.
But the anti-vaccination movement has become more vocal and politicized in recent years, despite general scientific agreement that vaccines work.
In the past year, more than half a million Americans died from COVID-19, more than the number of Americans who died in World War II. The toll leaves Wurtz vexed that three in 10 Americans still say they do not intend to get vaccinated.
"I'm just worried," she said, "that they're not getting vaccinated to make a political stand."
Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432 Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559