Throughout the agony of a pandemic that’s dragged on for nearly 20 months with no signs of abating, it’s been easy to overlook one important fact: While we have witnessed unprecedented global suffering, we have also beheld scientific marvels—astonishing pharmaceutical breakthroughs that beleaguered nurses and doctors slogging through the 1918 flu epidemic, our last such public health crisis, could only have dreamed of.
Starting in early 2020, scientists around the world collaborated with blazing speed to produce remarkably effective vaccines to counter the effects of a coronavirus that had never been detected among humans before. That speed owed itself in part to the ability to piggyback off of earlier breakthroughs, the result of decades of prior work on vaccine technology that allowed scientists to chop not just days or months but years from the usual production timelines. As one prominent researcher recently put it, the rapid development of COVID-19 inoculations represents “a sea change in how to develop vaccines.”
At the same time, pharmaceutical companies and research institutions around the world, including North Chicago’s own Abbott Labs and the University of Illinois, created quick, affordable and reliable tests to detect COVID. Equally as extraordinary is the news just emerging that Merck, Pfizer and Roche, among others, are poised to seek authorization for antiviral pills that in clinical trials are cutting the risk of hospitalization and death among people who test positive for COVID, a potential game-changer in the fight to curb this disease.
In a previous era—say, the mid-20th-century one in which the world gladly rolled up its sleeves for a vaccine to eradicate the scourge of polio—these breakthroughs would be embraced and celebrated. Sadly, we don’t live in that world right now. Instead, misinformation about COVID and the interventions that could have brought us closer to stopping it in its tracks has clouded Americans’ thinking and only prolonged the social and economic disruption.
That’s why CEOs like United Airlines’ Scott Kirby should be commended for declaring definitively that it’s time to use the tools at our disposal—in particular, our proven, safe and effective vaccines—to bring this virus to heel and put us on the road to recovery.
When Kirby in August mandated that all the Chicago-based carrier’s employees must be vaccinated by the end of September or face termination, some industry observers worried he’d have a mutiny on his hands.
The final tally proved otherwise: Fewer than 3% of United’s U.S. employees—or about 2,000 staffers—sought exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Once the tally was done, United said it was beginning the process of firing 320 workers for failing to provide proof of vaccination by the deadline. For a company with 67,000 employees, that’s a virtual drop in the bucket.
“This is a historic achievement for our airline and our employees as well as for the customers and communities we serve,” Kirby said in a statement to employees once the final count was in. “Our rationale for requiring the vaccine for all United’s U.S.-based employees was simple—to keep our people safe—and the truth is this: Everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated, and vaccine requirements work.”
One in four companies have instituted a vaccine mandate for U.S. workers, a sharp increase from last month, Bloomberg News reports, and an additional 13% of companies plan to put a mandate in place. United’s experience suggests even more employers can and should do the same. Yes, there’s a risk some staffers may jump ship rather than take the jab. But it’s well past time to weigh that risk against the cost of allowing this virus to incinerate the economy, particularly when the world’s science community has given us the ability to douse the flames.