When I was about 12 years old, a couple of years after my family moved to the US, I woke up one day with a rash. My mother looked at me and pointed, “there is no way that’s measles. You got vaccinated when we were in Iran when you were six.” When I started to run a fever later that same day we went to the doctor, and guess what? I had measles. It ends up when you flee your home and country during a revolution you leave everything behind, including your medical records, which is what happened to us when I was ten. So, there was no way to prove I had been vaccinated. However, my mother was sure I got the shots. She even called my childhood pediatrician, who had fled to Virginia, to confirm.
Roll the clock forward to 2022. The world is getting double and triple vaccinated, or jabbed as they say in the UK, and people are still getting COVID-19—the Delta variant, the Omicron variant, you pick the variant du jour. It’s so different than the measles vaccine, right? So, why do we have a vaccine? From what I read, medical science has proven that if you get the COVID-19 vaccine, statistically the chance of getting seriously sick and hospitalized is minimized. Really? Is that true? The Johns Hopkins data shows that the number of cases is up 3, 4 and in some countries 10-fold at the moment with the Omicron variant.
The topic of mandating vaccines has gotten controversial for governments as well as for executives of corporations. Mandating vaccination for employees is at center stage and the subject of much debate. In recent months at Extreme Networks, where I am employed, every few weeks a group of us from our Coronavirus Response Team get our CEO, Ed Meyercord, on a Zoom call to discuss, or rather debate, this topic. The folks on the call live in different states in the US and based on their work on the Coronavirus Response Team, are very up to date on the topic. What is bothersome is we can’t reach consensus. I imagine we are not the only company that is facing this issue. On a recent call I got so frustrated I went so far as to say that by not putting in place a vaccination policy we, the company, were being irresponsible. Afterwards I thought long and hard about my comment—and if I could take it back I would. Really were we, are we, being irresponsible?
Let’s see. As mentioned in prior blogs, Extreme’s Coronavirus Response Team meets weekly and communicates on email more often than that. We review data from around the globe on infection rates, shutdowns, and country by country–and even county by county—mandates and restrictions. We study vaccination percentages in the different locations where we have offices. We set policy, change policy, provide guidelines and recommendations, respond to questions from employees and then communicate on all of the above. I report out to our executive team every Tuesday morning on the status of the virus in the cities where we have our major offices. In 2021, we had experts on the pandemic present to Extreme’s Board of Directors. Helping ensure we are creating a safe and healthy environment for our employees is at the forefront of all of these discussions. As a company, we are more careful, thoughtful, and mindful of this topic than any other issue we have had to contemplate during my last six years with Extreme. So why did I say we are being irresponsible by not mandating vaccines? Probably because I am looking for certainty and finality on the topic. I am not alone in fantasizing that if we mandate vaccination, the virus will go away and we can all go back to our pre-pandemic ways.
Well, my thoughts are exactly that… a fantasy. The reality is the topic of mandating vaccinations is way more complicated than just saying so. There are many hurdles and checkpoints to think about before creating a policy. Legal challenges are just one example. The Biden administration put in place a vaccination mandate for Federal contractors and the policy is being challenged various courts throughout the country. OSHA issued a vaccine mandate for companies with over 100 employees. Well guess what? That rule is also being challenged in the courts.
Another complexity is the ever-changing patchwork of national and regional COVID-related protocols. On a recent call with our CEO, an employee from our Raleigh, NC office informed us that the mask policy there was still in place in indoor locations. And then an employee from our Salem, NH office reminded us there is no vaccination or mask mandate in that state… “Live Free or Die” is the New Hampshire state motto after all. Our CEO, who lives in New Jersey and regularly travels to New York, shared that “you can’t go anywhere in New York City without a vaccination card.” Worldwide is no different in policy variations. In Bangalore, India where we have two offices, our employees must show proof of vaccination before coming to the office. In Singapore, I am told that if you don’t get vaccinated and you end up in the hospital, government medical insurance will not cover your costs.
Administration is yet another track we have to consider as a company when we think about vaccination policy. In this most recent debate over whether we should put in place a vaccine mandate, our employment attorney reminded us that we would have to provide accommodation for employees with qualifying medical conditions and for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs that exempt them from getting vaccinated. During that discussion, we decided that if we put a vaccination policy in place, our VP of Talent, our employment attorney, and I would form a panel to review accommodation requests. I read recently that a multinational corporation with thousands of employees put in place a vaccine mandate and 600 employees requested a religious accommodation. I started to think about the resources our panel would need—education, legal advice, systems, internal communications, HR support—to handle these requests.
It goes without saying that COVID-19 has caused many deaths and hospitalizations all over the globe and countries, regions, and cities are handling the matter differently. Vaccine mandates run the gamut. Going back to my desire for certainty, I suppose we need some kind of uniformity. Perhaps the World Health Organization (“WHO”) will step in and provide guidance. But will governments follow suit? And how would the WHO enforce non-compliance? For now, corporate leaders will have to live with this level of complexity.
As leaders, we seek certainty and this subject of COVID is uncertain on so many levels. The status of the virus, efficacy of vaccinations, variants, fatality rate, government regulations and mandates all change so rapidly. We live in complex times. On the one hand, we are dealing with learning more about scientific issues (which are rational) and, on the other hand, we are dealing with beliefs, emotions and other matters to which humans do not always act or react rationally. As corporate leaders, we may not have all the answers and therefore the uncertainty will be uncomfortable. But we will continue to do the dance and manage around all of these issues doing what we believe is best for our teams and businesses.
The fact that I got measles twice still amazes me. My google search last night reflects that: “Once you have had measles, your body builds up resistance (immunity) to the virus and it’s highly unlikely you’ll get it again.” Either I’m one of those very rare cases and left my measles immunity in Iran when we fled, or I never got vaccinated. I will never know.