Nahshun Nevils, a maintenance specialist at a Detroit Jeep plant, heard the vaccine conspiracy theories from co-workers.
From his employer, he got constant emails urging him to get a shot. In the end, an elderly coworker’s death decided it.
“She was at work three weeks ago, and now she’s dead,” Nevils, 44, said at a recent union-hall vaccine clinic. “I have children that are small, I want to stick around for them. And I just want to have the best shot at surviving it that I can.”
Nevils’ choice is a success story for Detroit’s automakers, which have been encouraging workers to get inoculated while avoiding mandates that could anger those opposed to the vaccine.
From meatpackers to steel mills, U.S. manufacturers have endured Covid outbreaks, economic shutdowns, supply-chain bottlenecks and elevated levels of absenteeism during the pandemic. Vaccine hesitancy, even among a minority of their workforce, could add further strain as they try to recover lost production and revive the U.S. economy.
On Thursday, public-health authorities gave employers a fresh tool of persuasion: They announced that fully vaccinated Americans can largely do away with wearing masks, in the most significant shift in federal guidelines since the pandemic began.
Unions and advocacy groups are grappling with hesitancy, too.
“It’s a day-in, day-out battle, man,” said David Cruz, communications director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, which put together a digital media campaign to encourage vaccinations among agricultural and meatpacking workers. “We’re still dealing with this level of distrust. They want to be protected, but they’re not yet sure if this thing was rolled out too fast.”
Manufacturing before the pandemic represented the U.S. economy’s fifth-largest source of jobs, and most of those jobs can’t be done at home. While factory owners have tried to adapt to Covid-19 -- putting more space between workers where they can and installing shields between them when they can’t -- they need a stable workforce showing up day after day to make their products.
They’re concerned enough about the pace of vaccinations that the National Association of Manufacturers has a project called “This is Our Shot” to encourage employee vaccinations, including advice on how to overcome the qualms of some workers.
Even as vaccination rates inch higher, companies, elected officials and public-health experts are puzzling over how to reach hardcore vaccine opponents. With the U.S. still far from herd immunity and new variants of the virus in circulation, holdouts could trigger fresh outbreaks.
“The ideologues, the person for whom not getting a vaccine aligns with their deeper values of independence, rebellion -- that’s the group we’re terrified of,” said Ken Resnicow, a University of Michigan professor of health behavior and education. “They’re a tipping point. They’re necessary.”
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday announced a new statewide vaccination program to serve employers. Starting Monday, workplaces can book appointments for employees at the state’s seven mass-vaccination sites or request mobile vaccine clinics visit their sites. The program “is another way we’re working to build out vaccine administration to get more dosed, safely and conveniently,” Baker said.
At a Ram truck plant 30 minutes north of Detroit, an uptick in Covid cases left about 10 percent of assembly workers either sick or in quarantine last month, further slowing production of one of the company’s most profitable vehicles.
General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and Stellantis NV, owner of the Jeep and Ram brands, have been robocalling employees, holding inoculation drives for workers and families, investing in ad campaigns, playing videos in factories and flooding internal email and social-media channels with vaccine facts and employee testimonials.
Japanese competitor Toyota Motor Corp. in late March brought in the West Virginia National Guard to administer vaccinations at the company's sprawling engine and transmission plant in Buffalo, W.Va., about 25 miles from the state capital Charleston, W.Va.