As the current phase of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic continues to evolve, employers are faced with an ever-challenging landscape on how best be to protect the health of their employees and use vaccine passports. What is understood, based upon currently available, credible scientific evidence related, is that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) will continue to evolve if left to replicate unchecked. Sustained community-based transmission from person to person, primarily in unvaccinated people, will contribute to the pandemic being more severe and lasting much longer than it needs to in our part of the world.
The Delta Variant, which fueled the significant surge, or wave, in positive COVID-19 cases across the United States this past summer and into the fall lead to many preventable hospitalizations and deaths. It was a very predictable outcome, given the experiences of other jurisdictions such as India and the United Kingdom earlier in 2021 and the lack of high levels of vaccination and adherence to protocols. One near-certainty is that the virus will become the 5th endemic coronavirus that will continue to circulate the globe, transmitted from person to person, just as the other 4 coronavirus’ currently do. The outcome will be similar to other viruses, such as the various influenza (the flu) viruses that we know to expect to arrive each and every fall through winter seasons. Ordinarily, we don’t need to prepare for communicable diseases such as COVID-19 each year as they are not a threat to healthcare system sustainability.
Endemic viruses are those that are always present as a background risk of infection. For seasonal influenza, we have proven, safe and effective seasonal vaccinations available, which help control the impact of these viruses each year. With SARS-CoV-2, we were very fortunate to have built upon the experiences of SARS-CoV-1 from nearly 20 years ago, and the Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus (MERS) more recently. Similarly, vaccines based upon technology long in development, using cell instruction techniques to mount immune system training (messenger ribonucleic acid, or MRNA) matured at a very fortunate time. These developments, in combination with unprecedented inter-governmental and global cooperation to pre-fund research and development, and pay in advance, as well as eliminate the red tape that plagues vaccine development, all while maintaining safety, lead to the availability of vaccines in just over 1 year after cases were first identified. The development of these safe and very effective vaccines, more so than we could have hoped for, lead to an opportunity to mitigate risk, both on a societal and from an employer perspective.
One of the real risks associated with the global pandemic involves the inability of our healthcare system to handle large volumes of infected people at the same time. People do not stop getting cancer, having heart disease or diabetes, or requiring healthcare for stress, anxiety, and depression just because there is a pandemic. The healthcare systems in various jurisdictions within the US have been under considerable strain. When you add in the burden of large numbers of people being sick at once, from a vaccine-preventable condition, thus requiring the need for limiting people’s interaction, mask wearing, physical distancing, and now vaccine mandates.
This brings us to where we are today, at another turning point where employers can help push the pandemic into a phase where we learn to live with the virus and manage the background risk. Given the low levels of vaccine confidence in those that remain unvaccinated, mandating vaccination is the eventual and necessary response and the only way forward. It is a difficult but necessary response for employers to use vaccine passports, which can prove their employees have protection from severe disease and hospitalization, and to ensure the health and safety of their coworkers, customers, and the communities in which they operate.
Finally, we need to stop the further evolution of the virus and bring about the next phase of the pandemic. This can only be done with the vaccination of the remaining population susceptible to infection, transmission, and severe disease, and the use of vaccine passports. Letting the virus run wild and infect at will has serious implications due to the fact that you cannot predict who will survive a natural infection without requiring hospitalization.