OPINION: Take the ‘Freedom Vaccine’ — then head to work

Employees of CORE, a crisis response organization, take down information and get samples at the COVID-19 testing site at the Shrine of the Black Madonna on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in Atlanta on June 27, 2020. (STEVE SCHAEFER for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Employees of CORE, a crisis response organization, take down information and get samples at the COVID-19 testing site at the Shrine of the Black Madonna on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in Atlanta on June 27, 2020. (STEVE SCHAEFER for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

It’s long been a truism in conservative circles that government should be run like a business. It’s a mantra that means the private sector doesn’t piddle around. It gets stuff done.

And now here we are at a point where that might be right. Private enterprise may help save us when it comes to dealing with the pandemic.

We’re starting to see corporate America take charge on the COVID-19 front as vaccinations lag and hospitals fill up. Almost all of those hospitalized with COVID-19 and who are dying are unvaccinated, 95% and up, according to a New York Times study. Talk about a case study on vaccine effectiveness.

In fact, let’s call it The Amazing Trump Vaccine, named after the president who held office when the vaccines were rapidly being tested and manufactured. Perhaps this marketing might make it more palatable to those who still refuse to get the jab. Or how about the Freedom Vaccine? But I digress.

Recently, businesses and hospital systems have been mandating that workers get vaccinated if they want to remain as employees. Sure, there are provisions that allow some workers to opt out of vaccinations if they have certain medical issues or if a deity has told them otherwise. But legally, it appears the businesses are on solid ground.

Sure, we are all tired of this masks-on, masks-off; it’s safe; no, it’s not safe! Business leaders, who are largely driven by corporate self-interest and profit, are now seeing the best path forward is to make sure their workforces — and in some cases, their customers — are vaccinated.

Exactly one year ago, as cases in Georgia were spiking, I spoke with Harry Heiman, a professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. We talked about mask mandates and where the science was going on this new virus.

“In August 2021, we now know that people should be vaccinated,” he said this week. “Mandatory vaccines for employees are a critical tool. (Business leaders) recognize that we have to take responsibility for what we are responsible for.”

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Moderna COVID-19 vaccines sit on a tray as they are prepared to be administered to health care workers at the DeKalb County COVID-19 BrandsMart USA drive-thru testing site on Jan. 7, 2021, in Doraville. (Curtis Compton / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Moderna COVID-19 vaccines sit on a tray as they are prepared to be administered to health care workers at the DeKalb County COVID-19 BrandsMart USA drive-thru testing site on Jan. 7, 2021, in Doraville. (Curtis Compton / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Moderna COVID-19 vaccines sit on a tray as they are prepared to be administered to health care workers at the DeKalb County COVID-19 BrandsMart USA drive-thru testing site on Jan. 7, 2021, in Doraville. (Curtis Compton / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

He noted that last year there was debate over what course should take precedence. At the time, public health measures were pitted against taking steps to open up the economy. It was the dilemma Gov. Brian Kemp faced when he moved to open up barber shops and nail salons and then took heat from President Donald Trump — who, as it turns out, was just getting warmed up against his Georgia ex-buddy.

“Now,” says Heiman, “the economy and public health are intrinsically tied together. It wasn’t either/or, it was both.”

He noted there’s a segment of the unvaccinated population (more than 47% of Georgians have had at least one shot) who say they won’t get it until they’re required to. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about a quarter of the unvaccinated said they’d do so if forced.

It’s kind of like seat belts. Decades ago, everyone knew they were safe but hardly anyone used them. Then cops started handing out tickets and almost everyone now buckles up.

The list of corporations that have told some or all employees that getting vaccinated is a “condition of employment” grows by the day: Walmart, Tyson Foods, Google, Microsoft, United Airlines, The Walt Disney Co.

In Georgia, Emory Healthcare, Invesco and even Cox Enterprises, which writes my paychecks, are requiring workers coming to the company headquarters to be vaccinated.

I called Jon Chally, a commercial litigator from Atlanta who says he has “advised clients how to navigate the pandemic.”

The reason for the increasing number of vaccine mandates is simple, he said: “There’s a genuine desire with businesses to be safe for their employees and customers. And they also want to get moving. There’s been a certain frustration: ‘What do we need to do to get over this?’ The science is to the point that the vaccine is what we need to get over this.”

I asked if big businesses will be the ones to forge the path for smaller businesses to follow. No, it’ll be case by case, he said. Big businesses have to make decisions on all sorts of locations with different clientele and mindsets.

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Maddie Nichols, 8, sits in the car as her mother Blythe Nichols (not pictured) decorates it with signs before they participate in a drive-by protest against Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen some Georgia businesses on April 24, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Maddie Nichols, 8, sits in the car as her mother Blythe Nichols (not pictured) decorates it with signs before they participate in a drive-by protest against Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen some Georgia businesses on April 24, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Maddie Nichols, 8, sits in the car as her mother Blythe Nichols (not pictured) decorates it with signs before they participate in a drive-by protest against Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen some Georgia businesses on April 24, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

“The simple answer is that more will do it, but science will drive it,” Chally said. “I suppose there is safety in numbers. But in the business world, it’s more what is best for our employees and customers and, ultimately, to the business.”

Now, that‘s not to say any of that will be done without pushback. First, the anti-vax crowd is full-throated, often verging on rabid, and is quick to tell politicians — or anyone else on social media — what is percolating in their noodles. And politicians, by nature, are a reactive lot.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, an aspiring Republican from Alpharetta, announced this week he’s filing legislation to prohibit a COVID-19 vaccination from being used as a condition of employment, admittance to a business, or to attend a public school.

“It should not be the place of any government or business to institute mandates that their employees or customers receive a COVID-19 vaccine or to provide proof of vaccination in order to receive a service,” said Beach, who has always been a big pro-bidness guy. He used to run the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and now heads the North Fulton Community Improvement District (CID). He also jumped on the Stop The Steal bandwagon in a big way.

Now, businesses absolutely hate to be in the middle of a political fight. They prefer simply to focus on the business of doing business. And with a tight labor market, companies may get squeamish about irking those who remain resolutely unvaccinated. They may quit and need to be replaced.

In Florida, the Legislature and that state’s ambitious governor, Ron DeSantis, passed legislation vaguely similar to Beach’s, prohibiting businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. It’s a “personal choice” issue, they say — you know, the choice for citizens to catch a deadly disease if they want and then let it mutate.

But a federal judge this week ruled in favor of a cruise line, which wanted its crew and passengers to show proof of vaccination. Cruise lines have forever been known as “floating petri dishes,” and COVID has decimated that business. This is an attempt to right the ship.

Norwegian Cruise Line argued that DeSantis and Co.’s stand was an “anomalous, misguided intrusion (that) threatens to spoil (the company’s) careful planning and force it to cancel or hobble upcoming cruises, thereby imperiling and impairing passengers’ experiences and inflicting irreparable harm of vast dimensions.”

Republicans have long argued that government should get out of the way of business. In this case, the judge said government can’t get in the way of a business trying to keep its people safe.

I know, I know, some people are arguing these vaccination mandates are kind of like civil rights cases and are discriminatory. But my Google Law degree says that unvaccinated, feverish people are not a protected class.

We’re sure to see more of these sideshows in front of judges as the nation tries to figure out a path forward.