Plants should be working out a plan and addressing employee concerns as they prepare to schedule vaccines
By Jackie Clark
As vaccination against COVID-19 continues, many meat and poultry industry stakeholders are eager to see processing plant employees be vaccinated to keep them safe and prevent further supply chain disruptions.
KatieRose McCullough director scientific and regulatory affairs at North American Meat Institute, discussed some key elements of vaccine distribution in a webinar hosted Jan. 21 by the National Pork Board.
Phase 1a of vaccine distribution includes healthcare professionals and those living and working in long term care, she explained. Phase 1b includes those over 75 years old and an estimated 30 million frontline essential workers, including those working in food and agriculture.
When meat and poultry employees are able to be vaccinated, companies have three main options.
First, “especially for some of our larger plants … they’re looking to become an approved vaccine provider,” McCullough said. They have “qualified individuals on staff to administer the vaccine,” and conduct follow-up monitoring for adverse reactions or side effects.
Secondly, “some of these plants contract with a local clinic or different medical provider to come to the workplace to administer the vaccine,” she explained. This approach is similar to what’s been done for testing and screening. Companies will “just expand the use of that type of contract to come up with a vaccine plan and help us administer the vaccine.”
Finally, “some of the smaller plants (may) work with a local pharmacy where your employees can go for the vaccine,” she added.
Vaccine skepticism could potentially be an obstacle in trying to get meat plants employees vaccinated.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t trust the approval process or have a lot of concerns,” McCullough explained. Some plants anecdotally are saying only 20 per cent are willing to get the vaccine.
“The enormous focus that we’re seeing is flooding plants with vaccine positive messaging,” she said. That messaging provides an opportunity to answer questions and address concerns. The industry should be “doing our best to address those concerns head-on now, so that when we get access to the vaccine. we’re ready to hit the road.”
The Center for Disease Control has provided a communications toolkit that can help educate workforces.
Companies should put together a vaccine plan, McCullough said.
Vaccine “administration won’t happen over night … we’re going to take a series of weeks and administer the vaccine likely in smaller portions of the (workforce) each day,” she explained. This gradual process allows monitoring for reactions or for employees experiencing side-effects to go home without disrupting production continuity.
The goal “first and foremost is to keep our employees safe,” McCullough said. “But certainly, second is that we keep the supply chain operating, not just for the health of the plant,” but for primary producers as well.
Some state-by-state variability in vaccine allocation may exist, because “this is the federal guidance putting meat and poultry plant workers along other essential workers in Phase 1b, some states operate a little differently,” McCullough explained. For example, in Texas, vaccine allocation is not based on employment, but more on health status and co-morbidities.
However, generally, most states are “on the cusp of moving into Phase 1b,” she said.
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