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Faced with losing their jobs, even the most hesitant are getting vaccinated

Oct 7, 2021
Originally published on October 8, 2021 6:27 am

In the quest to get more Americans vaccinated, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Vaccine mandates work.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at United Airlines. On Aug. 6, United became the first U.S. airline to tell its workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they wanted to keep their jobs.

The company says 99.5% of United employees have been vaccinated, not counting the roughly 2,000 who have applied for religious or medical exemptions. Elsewhere, other employers also report success with mandates. Tyson Foods, New York City schools, major hospital systems in Maine and the NBA are among those with vaccination rates topping 90%.

Taking the shot isn't an easy decision for many people. One of them was Margaret Applegate, a San Francisco-based customer service agent with United for 29 years. She was proud of how United had handled the pandemic up until then — the lengths the airline had gone to for keeping workers and customers safe, even partnering with Clorox on cleaning and disinfecting.

Now she no longer felt so proud.

Applegate, who is 57, had not gotten vaccinated. Like many people, she was scared. She'd heard from friends in the U.S. and abroad about bad reactions to the shots, and she worried that the vaccine could exacerbate her heart condition.

She was also uneasy about how quickly the COVID-19 vaccines had been developed and authorized for use.

"I thought that was a little bit too rushed. It just felt too rushed," she says.

Still, she wrestled with what to do. She was troubled by the death of a co-worker from COVID-19 and the diminished health of another co-worker who had been hospitalized with the virus and survived. She recognized the vaccine mandate as her company's final push to keep employees safe.

Deciding to get vaccinated involves getting the opinions of people you trust

With United's deadline approaching, Applegate finally settled on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. She reasoned that the technology behind the J&J shot was more established than the mRNA technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Even then, she remained highly conflicted. She spoke with her doctor and her children, one of whom is a cancer researcher. The day before her appointment, Applegate connected with Lori Augustine, a former customer service agent who rose through the ranks to become a vice president at United. Though they are roughly the same age, Applegate thinks of her as motherly, someone whose opinion she trusts.

Sensing Applegate's lingering hesitation about the vaccine, Augustine did what a mother would do. She offered to take her to the appointment.

"When she offered, I could not really say no," says Applegate. "She genuinely cared."

Across industries, vaccine mandates are delivering results

After being denied a religious exemption, Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins reluctantly went for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

"The only options [were] to get vaccinated or not play in the NBA," Wiggins said at a news conference, sharing that it was a tough decision. "Hopefully it works out in the long run, and in 10 years I'm still healthy."

Even in places where there is not yet a vaccine mandate, just the anticipation of one seems to be having an effect.

Andre Bastian works as a federal contractor, guarding a prominent government building in Washington, D.C. After a slow start and a lot of opposition, almost all of his co-workers have now been vaccinated. Under President Biden's executive order, federal contractors must be vaccinated by Dec. 8.

"What it really comes down to is money," says Bastian, a former Marine, noting that private security pays well, leading even the most skeptical to "just bite the bullet and do it."

At United, Margaret Applegate is relieved to have the decision behind her. She wasn't ready to quit her job. She is loved by customers, who give her rave reviews. She, in turn, loves the challenge.

"I was planning on still going strong, maybe even at 70 if I can," she says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the pandemic drags on, something is becoming increasingly clear - when faced with the option of losing their jobs, even the most hesitant people are getting vaccinated. Vaccination rates are topping 90% in places where workers don't have a choice. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports on the forces making that happen.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: If you've traveled through San Francisco on United Airlines, there's a chance you've met Margaret Applegate.

MARGARET APPLEGATE: I'm a customer service agent in San Francisco, 29 years.

HSU: It's a job she loves, even though airline passengers can be a handful. Early in the pandemic, she was happy about everything her company was doing to keep people safe. United even partnered with Clorox to up their cleaning game.

APPLEGATE: So I was feeling very proud of it. And then the minute that they mandated, I didn't feel that proud.

HSU: She's talking about August 6, the day United announced its vaccine mandate. Her employer of 29 years was suddenly telling her, get vaccinated or goodbye. Applegate, who's 57, had not gotten the shots. Like many people, she was scared - scared she'd have a bad reaction because of her heart condition, scared at how fast the vaccines had been developed and authorized for use.

APPLEGATE: I thought that was a little bit too rushed. It just felt too rushed.

HSU: Other things weighed on her, too. She had coworkers who had gotten sick. Someone in her own department died from COVID.

APPLEGATE: He was well-known and well-liked and everything. And of course, that hit very close to home.

HSU: She wrestled with the decision, trying to make sense of what was most important, what was right for her. Finally, with United's deadline approaching, Applegate made an appointment to get the Johnson & Johnson shot. The technology, she reasoned, had been around longer than the mRNA technology behind the other vaccines. Even then, she remained highly conflicted. She talked to her doctor, her children and the day before her appointment, her big boss - the head of United at San Francisco airport.

APPLEGATE: She's just such a motherly person. She's very nurturing.

HSU: And she did what a mother would do. She offered to accompany Applegate to her appointment.

APPLEGATE: To come with me to get the shot - yes. When she offered, I could not really say no because I thought, wow, what manager does that? She actually, genuinely cared.

HSU: And so last month, Margaret Applegate became one of the 99.5%. That's how much of United's workforce has gotten vaccinated, not including the couple thousand who applied for exemptions. Other employers with mandates are reporting success as well. Tyson Foods, New York City schools, major hospital systems in Maine and the NBA, all topping 90% vaccinated. Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins reluctantly gave in after being denied a religious exemption.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW WIGGINS: I feel like the only option was to get vaccinated or not play in the NBA (laughter).

HSU: Even in places where there is not yet a vaccine requirement, just the anticipation of one seems to be having an effect. Andre Bastian works as a federal contractor guarding a government building in Washington, D.C. After a slow start and lots of opposition, almost all of his coworkers are now vaccinated ahead of a December deadline.

ANDRE BASTIAN: What it really comes down to is money.

HSU: Bastian, a former Marine, says private security pays well. It's a job you don't want to lose, and that makes all the difference.

BASTIAN: People in a higher-salary job are like, yeah, OK, I'll just bite the bullet and do it.

HSU: At United, Margaret Applegate is relieved to have the decision behind her. She is loved by customers who give her rave reviews. She wasn't ready to quit her job.

APPLEGATE: I was planning on still going strong maybe even at 70, if I can.

HSU: As long as health permits, she says. And with the COVID vaccine, she has another layer of protection.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUSINE'S "PANORAMIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.