Vaccines are not enough; protective measures are no less important

21 January 2021

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Laura El Hayek
Researcher at ImpACT International for HumanRights Policies

As vaccination begins around the globe, the world has begun the long journey back to normalcy. However, a new wave of infections could erupt if governments and businesses relax safety measures too quickly. Such a response would erode both the efficacy of the already-halting fight to slow the spread of the virus, as well as the people’s confidence in their leaders.

Employers should not depend on vaccination to keep their workers safe. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and guidance on practices such as physical distancing must continue to be provided. Here’s why:

Trust in the vaccines must precede wide adoption

The COVID-19 vaccines continue to be controversial among many publics, with acceptance rates low in in many countries. Cases in point: Kuwait, 23.6%; Jordan, 28.4%; Italy, 53.7; Russia, 54.9%; Poland, 56.3%; United States, 56.9%; and France, 58.9%.

This hesitancy is due, in part, to the rush to develop and approve the vaccines under emergency-use authorizations. Added to that is the confusing welter of vaccines on the market or under development, each with its own required regimens for storage, distribution and administration. The fear that corners were cut or that insufficient safety data have been collected has led many people to adopt a wait-and-see approach. Building trust in the Covid-19 among different cultures and demographics will take more time than originally expected.

In light of the lingering doubts, there is not the foundation of trust required to support mandatory vaccination. This means businesses must continue to implement and require protective measures.

"A vaccine is only effective if people are vaccinated, so it is really crucial that people trust the vaccine and are willing to get it," said Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., assistant professor and the director of the Media and Health Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University. "We will only reach community-level immunity if about 70 per cent of the population has gotten the vaccine.”

Unavailable for those who want it, available for those who don't

While some people who are offered the vaccines hesitate to get it, many others who are eager for their turn do not have access to the treatment.

In Russia, which is among the privileged countries with early access, just 15% of people say they are willing to be vaccinated as soon as possible; only another 25% say they would be comfortable doing so within a year. And in the United States, health systems have reported that 35% of their workers do not want the vaccine.

In contrast, millions in developing countries are eager to be vaccinated but cannot because none of the vaccines are available to them.

“More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country. Not 25 million; not 25,000; just 25," said the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who warned of a ”catastrophic moral failure" in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Effectiveness vs. efficacy

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an American public health institute in the United States, recommends against the assumption that people are completely immune to infection after vaccination.

In clinical trials, both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines demonstrated an efficacy rate of 95 per cent--high, but not 100 per cent. Thus, a small number of people might still become infected even after receiving the two required doses.

Moreover, it is crucial to distinguish between efficacy and effectiveness. A vaccine's efficacy rate is determined according to performance in clinical trials. Effectiveness, however, can only be proven in the “real world,” simply because actual circumstances are not as controlled as in research.

What should businesses do?

It is crucial that businesses continue to implement safety and health measures to protect their employees. Thus, it is highly recommended that they continue to:

-        Provide employees who must work outside the home with hygiene supplies such as face masks and sanitizer.

-        Routinely clean and disinfect group work sites.

-        Allow employees to work at home whenever possible.

-        Give paid sick leave to workers who have been exposed to the virus or suffer symptoms related to COVID-19.

-        Provide sufficient workplace space to allow physical distancing of at least 1 metre.

-        Limit unnecessary travel, relying instead on phone calls and online meetings.

With the unwillingness of many people to be vaccinated and the unavailability of the vaccines in poor nations, easing up on protective measures against COVID-19 will halt progress in the fight to reduce the toll of the pandemic. Efforts must redouble, not relax!