With the delta variant surging, should manufacturing companies and industry organizations require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19?
The National Association of Manufacturers has decided, at least for itself, the answer is yes. It's mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all its staff by mid-September.
NAM's July 29 decision comes as a small but growing number of companies are doing that, including United Airlines, Google and Goldman Sachs. NAM's announcement came on the same day President Joe Biden said he was requiring federal employees to be vaccinated.
NAM said it had a 98 percent voluntary vaccination rate for its employees before the mandate but said it decided to go ahead and require it so its staff and those they interact with would be "as safe as possible."
For NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons, it may be partly personal. He wrote movingly of his own father dying of COVID-19 in December.
In last month's announcement, Timmons said he sees vaccines as critical to economic recovery and ending the pandemic.
"They are proven, safe and the only way we can save lives, end the pandemic and sustain our economic recovery," he said. "The recent surge in cases is a reminder that this pandemic is not over, but with these vaccines, it is within our power to dramatically change the trajectory of this virus."
At the moment, this is a controversial subject. From my own conversations and listening to podcasts with people who have decided not to be vaccinated, you hear concerns about reports of blood clotting and questions about unknown long-term impacts, as well as skepticism about vaccines.
People have strong opinions. Maybe full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will change some opinions. Here's a story on nurses in Virginia bucking their hospital's vaccine mandate.
But it also seems some people are open to being nudged, which to me gets to vaccine mandates and the role of the private sector.
There's an argument now in the public health community that employer mandates are the best strategy we've got to significantly raise the national rate of 61 percent of people 18 and over being fully vaccinated in the U.S. as of mid-August.
In a late July op-ed in USA Today, public health experts from the University of Pennsylvania said politics and unclear legal authority make it basically impossible for the federal government to require vaccines.
But for private firms, they said it's legal, ethical and effective, and will be the "only way" to beat the coronavirus.
"Mandates spearheaded and executed by the private sector are our most crucial tool for thwarting delta surges," they wrote, arguing that the EEOC allows it, provided it's done in a nondiscriminatory way.
I found one company in plastics that has apparently mandated it, the recycling firm Lastique International Corp. in Louisville. They didn't respond to requests to talk about their decision, but with NAM on record, I contacted several trade associations in plastics to see where they stood.
The American Chemistry Council isn't ruling out a mandate.
"We're continuing to monitor the evolving situation and though we may move to a vaccine mandate, that decision hasn't been made yet," said ACC spokesman Patrick Hurston.
Washington-based ACC has taken some of the usual steps, like offering greater flexibility for remote work and free on-site COVID testing.
It also said that prior to reopening its office to employees, it surveyed staff and found that more than 90 percent said they had been, or intended to be, fully vaccinated.
"As a continuation of our commitment to the safety of staff, we are working with a third-party vendor to verify vaccination status, prior to making a decision about a vaccination mandate," ACC said.
The Plastics Industry Association declined to comment, citing health privacy issues.
In a July 28 interview with the magazine PETplanet, Tony Radoszewski, the association's president and CEO, said the group followed public health guidelines and adapted to virtual operations. But he did not discuss vaccines.
Similarly, the Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors and the American Mold Builders Association declined to comment.
As a vaccinated person, I hope that the idea of vaccination is something all manufacturing companies and their leadership support.
NAM is really leading by example with lots of information on its website about its "This Is Our Shot" effort and vaccine campaigns of member companies.
There's obviously a lot of misinformation out there about vaccines, along with sincere concerns and questions, and I'm trying to avoid this column getting too much into politics. Maybe the full FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which came Monday, will convince some.
But bottom line, I think NAM's vaccine mandate is a good idea. It's time. Control of our health care is deeply personal to all of us and a mandate is a hard decision to make for an entire organization, but I don't see how we can beat this evolving virus unless vaccination rates get higher.
More companies and groups should follow NAM's lead.
Toloken is an assistant managing editor with Plastics News, a sister publication of Rubber News.