Health and Healthcare Systems

Is this the great vaccine-mandate resignation that wasn’t?

People protest a company's COVID-19 vaccine mandate in Everett, Washington, October 15, 2021.

People protest a company's COVID-19 vaccine mandate in Everett, Washington, October 15, 2021. Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • COVID-19 vaccine mandates have spurred protests and resignations.
  • But the evidence so far points to marginal workforce losses.
  • Evidence also suggests that mandates keep people safe and save lives.

Members of the Swiss Guard, the elite soldiers sworn to sacrifice their lives for the Pope since 1506, triggered headlines last month when they decided a workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandate was too much to bear and quit.

Reading below those headlines revealed that just 2% of the corps was leaving, however.

A similar dynamic has played out elsewhere, as fiery words and defiant resignations draw serious media attention – but result in a less-than-serious loss of workers.

The effects of vaccine mandates around the world

Instead, vaccination requirements mostly seem to be boosting immunization rates and bolstering the notion that mandates work.

In France, the widely reported suspension of 3,000 health workers for bucking a vaccine mandate equaled 0.1% of the total; the country’s overall vaccination rate has risen sharply since the directive and others like it were announced. In Italy, people seem to have largely accepted a requirement for workers to get vaccinated or frequently tested.

Workers in the US have been vocal about plans to quit en masse in response to mandates; a follow-through hasn't materialized. Resistance to a New York Police Department mandate portended the departure of thousands of officers, but just 89 (0.3% of the force) ultimately left.

And despite numerous protests, one recent tally of vaccine mandate-related departures at US hospitals ranged from 0.02% to no more than 4.7% of staff.

Image: World Economic Forum

In Australia there’s a corresponding pattern. Following warnings of a potential shortage of New South Wales health department workers in response to a vaccine mandate, fewer than 0.1% quit.

It might be instructive to compare vaccine mandate-related departures with staff turnover in a more normal era. In New South Wales, the turnover rate among medical staff was more than 9% in the financial year ended in 2019.

In the US, the hospital staff turnover rate was 17.8% in 2019, and the rate for all New York City employees including police was 16.1% in 2018, when the resignation rate was 2.6%. In the European Union, the turnover rate was 7.2% for “office professionals” in 2019, and 6% for “health professionals.”

As more mandates come into effect in both the public and private sectors – sometimes even as employees have uncertain access to vaccines – they could have a more serious impact on these numbers. In the US, some 84 million private-sector workers may be subject to a vaccine mandate due to come into effect in January.

So far, though, the evidence points to mostly-performative complaining out of proportion with actual resignations, and frequently inflected with political overtones. In Italy, for example, anti-mandate protests have brought together an odd alliance of anarchists, trade unionists, and neo-fascists.

Have you read?
covid-vaccine-mandate-chart
Image: World Economic Forum

Vaccines are poised to become a bigger part of peoples’ lives no matter how they feel about mandates. There have been two dozen COVID-19 vaccines approved or authorized, but there are about 90 more in development. And even countries fortunate enough to have ready access to them need to find ways to increase uptake.

Methods have varied. Amazon warehouses, for example, lack vaccine mandates but workers there have been told they don’t have to wear masks on the job if they’re fully vaccinated.

A wide variety of other companies have implemented more explicit mandates, from Google to Australian mining giant BHP. By last month, a quarter of workers in the US said their employers were requiring them to get vaccinated, up from 9% in June, according to one survey.

It's true that many people are indeed walking away from their jobs. Record numbers in the US have been quitting, for example. But experts chalk this up to a backlog of workers only now willing to test the job market following many months of uncertainty, and to meager wages.

They also say it may stem from a reluctance to venture forth and risk exposure to the still-rampant coronavirus, particularly at public-facing jobs – a concern that could be addressed with more mandates.

vaccine-mandate-resignation
Image: World Economic Forum

More reading about vaccine mandates

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Now is a good time to reconsider the idea of religious exemptions from vaccine mandates, according to this piece, because they’re designed to protect religious faith but are “overwhelmingly” used in bad faith. (Wired)
  • Can a pro-COVID-19-vaccine, anti-mandate position help a Republican win a governor’s race in a Democratic state, this piece asked – a few days before Virginia voters answered with a resounding “yes.” (STAT)
  • People shouldn’t feel they’re being treated only because they’re a public health threat, according to this piece, which argues that vaccine mandates must avoid colonial and controlling pitfalls. (The New Humanitarian)
  • Investigators in Italy recently uncovered a group of far-right extremists willing to plan acts of violence, according to this report. Among the group’s interests: Nazi occultism and anti-vaccine campaigns. (Institute for International Political Studies)
  • Diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles, rubella, and chicken pox – these are the immunizations already mandated in all 50 states in the US and Washington, D.C., according to this piece. (Pew Research Center)
  • No vaccine is 100% effective against any disease. But the bottom line, according to this piece, is that widely-approved COVID-19 vaccines reduce the odds of getting infected and the risk of death. (Kaiser Health News)
  • How a relatively populous and poor Puerto Rico achieved a better vaccination rate than any US state, according to this analysis: a lack of political polarization on the issue, and mandates. (STAT)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Vaccination, COVID-19 and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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