COVID-19: The Road To Reopening
The COVID-19 pandemic has put everything, and everyone, to the test. Now, with a COVID-19 vaccine in the early stages of distribution, there is finally a possible end in sight to this unprecedented pandemic. But, according to Matthew Harrison, Head of Morgan Stanley Biotechnology Research, while a return to “business as usual” is closer than it was just one month ago, business leaders still face big challenges in navigating how, when and where their business will start to emerge from the protocols put in place in 2020.1
The Race to Vaccinate
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine kicked off the early stages of what has been called “the most ambitious vaccination drive in US history”2 on December 13th as the first 2.9 million doses of the vaccine were shipped for distribution. The approval of a second vaccine from Moderna for emergency use authorization helped bolster hopes, adding an additional 100 million doses to the original 100 million dose order of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the federal government.
And, pending results of their late-stage trials, the approval of vaccines from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson in the coming months could help further accelerate the vaccination process.
"More than 1 million people receiving their ﬁrst dose of coronavirus vaccine almost every day of the past week." 3
The Biden administration has made accelerating the rate of vaccinations a key priority, laying out a timeline for 100 million shots in the first 100 days4. And, as of January 31, 2021, nearly 50 million doses have been distributed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with more than 1 million people receiving their first dose of coronavirus vaccine almost every day of the past week.5
The Challenges to Herd Immunity
Public concerns around safety continue to cloud projections of how many Americans will get the vaccine. A recent survey found that 27% of the American public would probably or definitely not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it was free and determined to be safe.6
There is also concern about whether people will go back for the second shot, as both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses that should be taken several weeks apart. The potential for drop off in people who miss the second dose of a multidose vaccine ranges, with more promising studies showing that 80% of people returned for the second treatment in a two-dose vaccine for shingles.7
There is hope that even a single dose may prove effective against COVID-19, but, with only two percent of people in the clinical trial for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine missing their second dose8, it’s not entirely known what level of protection a single dose of the vaccine may provide.
What It Means for Businesses
Despite the progress around vaccines, the US continues to see upward trends in daily COVID-19 cases that will likely not begin to drop off until late summer, when the majority of the population is projected to be vaccinated. As such, businesses can expect to maintain their current operations and protocols, offering an opportune time to discuss and plan for what a return to the workplace will look like.
Beyond the process for determining if and when physical office locations will reopen, and which employees will be required to return, the issue of how to address vaccination requirements for employees returning to work will also be a topic of discussion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued guidance saying employers can generally require employees to get vaccinated.9 Whether or not businesses require the vaccine, they can play a critical role in helping amplify the efforts of federal and state public health agencies in educating the public about the importance of getting vaccinated.10
"Many businesses have said they will encourage vaccinations through a mix of incentives and consequences, but not require them." 11
One of the last hurdles in the effort to return to normalcy will be school-aged children and their ability to safely return to on-campus learning. While the education system has heroically adapted to the uncharted territory of remote learning, many parents have struggled to maintain typical work schedules with kids in the home, while others unable to work remotely have been forced to leave their jobs.
A key factor in making the COVID-19 vaccines available to students will be the results of clinical trials on children under the age of 12, which have yet to begin.12 This has created some uncertainty around whether vaccines will be available in time for the fall 2021 school year, and what that may mean if they are not. Despite any progress made in reaching herd immunity with the adult population, a lack of vaccine for children could mean continued mask and distancing protocols, or even a return to remote based learning and a continuation of the struggles and challenges working parents have faced in 2020.
While the vaccine has brought some much-needed hope to the COVID-19 crisis, the coming months will present businesses with a new set of challenges as the desire for a return to normal collides with the logistics of mass vaccinations. From determining whether to require vaccination of employees who return to the workplace to addressing changes made to employee compensation and benefits during the crisis – 30% of companies cut pay in response to COVID-1913, while 11% suspended company matching for 401(k)s14 – business leaders will be expected to provide a clear plan for how their companies will handle the transition to our new normal.
As the vaccination process continues to unfold, Morgan Stanley at Work will continue to provide information and insights around how the latest developments will impact the workplace. To learn more about how workplace benefits, and employee needs, have changed during the crisis, a Morgan Stanley Financial Advisor can help you explore solutions that help employees address their immediate financial wellness needs and future financial and retirement goals as the pandemic comes to an end.