Year 2 of the global pandemic

Acknowledgment, gratitude, and hope as we move forward together.

The pandemic has affected all of us in one way or another, often in unprecedented ways. In 2021, we experienced fear, loss, uncertainty, exhaustion, and perseverance, as our communities came together to fight the coronavirus and protect and care for each other. We faced numerous trials from the onset, but together, we responded in remarkable fashion: innovating, adapting, and sacrificing.

Our Kaiser Permanente caregivers — including our physicians and nurses and all our staff — had their lives upended by the pandemic. Yet, their compassion and excellence never wavered, despite a level of exhaustion never before experienced.

We are deeply grateful to our members, patients, and their families, who adapted to the evolving situation and continued to show appreciation for our heroic staff. We are also thankful to our unions, which served to strengthen our pandemic response. And we appreciate the many wonderful organizations in our communities that helped bring vaccinations and trusted information to the most vulnerable people we serve.

2021: A year of tragedy and hope

The year began with both tragedy and hope: tragedy, as a massive surge that started at the end of 2020 continued to rage across much of America; great hope, as the launch of the newly approved vaccines promised to dramatically limit the pandemic’s future damage.

The wave of infections that was cresting at the start of 2021 was the worst we had seen up to that point. Many of the nation’s hospitals were overwhelmed, and physicians and staff were exhausted. As that wave receded, the effort to provide vaccinations launched, demanding creativity, education, and patience. This effort was further challenged by another wave of infection, with the delta variant that tested our faith in recovery.

By fall, our vaccination effort expanded to younger populations, and we were able to provide boosters to people who had already been vaccinated.

The year ended with the surge of the omicron variant bringing the fastest spread of the virus since the start of the pandemic. The asymptomatic nature of many omicron infections triggered a spike in demand for COVID-19 testing. But the greatest strain fell on U.S. hospitals after the Christmas holiday, primarily caused by severe infections among older people and people who were unvaccinated or had not received a booster.

The pandemic was unrelenting. Our health care organization and its people delivered the care and compassion needed by a nation besieged by new variants. The people of Kaiser Permanente fought all year to save lives, care for patients with COVID-19, and help prevent others from contracting the deadly virus. We worked together to help protect our teams and provide affordable, safe, and effective care to our members and communities.

Vaccination efforts

The arrival of vaccines in late 2020 finally gave our nation the tools we needed to help slow the pace of the pandemic. By the end of 2021, Kaiser Permanente had safely delivered more than 10.5 million vaccine doses to our members and communities, an effort that continues today.

Kaiser Permanente has been at the forefront of the vaccination campaign, because we demonstrated that we could act quickly and effectively to provide vaccinations to people who were eligible as soon as we received supplies.

man receiving vaccination for COVID-19

We established clear principles at the outset, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the communities where we operate, to set priorities for vaccinating our employees, our members, and the public equitably, safely, and as quickly as supplies allowed.

In accordance with CDC guidelines, we prioritized health care workers, who faced the greatest risk of exposure to coronavirus infections. Our model for vaccination moved to include our members and the public prioritized first by age, then by those at increased risk for exposure or complications based on existing medical conditions and where they live.

But, in the first part of the year, across the nation, there was not enough vaccine available to meet the need. We leveraged our integrated model of care and our technology and population management tools to prioritize and administer vaccinations, and track progress to ensure equitable, safe, and timely vaccination administration.

As more vaccine was produced, we were able to do and reach more. In many of the regions around the nation where Kaiser Permanente offers services, we led or took part in mass vaccination efforts to expand distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. We worked in partnership with state and local government agencies and with other health care providers on ways to get more people vaccinated.

One of the most critical roles we played in every Kaiser Permanente market centered on vaccine education. We have a long-standing commitment to and practice of culturally and linguistically responsive care, and we used this capability to reach people with vaccine hesitancy and deliver vaccinations equitably.

Our efforts allowed us to get the vaccine to disadvantaged and at-risk populations. We partnered with public health organizations and others to locate mass vaccination sites closer to the community and used mobile sites, pop-up clinics, and other tools to deliver directly to people who could not come to us.

Delivering care

From the very beginning of the pandemic, our people have worked hard to help Kaiser Permanente facilities remain safe places to work and receive high-quality care. We are very proud of our success in helping protect our members, patients, and workforce from infection and harm.

health care employees moving a cart of medical supplies

We monitored each market and expanded capabilities to help increase treatment space and supplies to meet the evolving demands of the pandemic. We leveraged the flexibility of our team-based model to adjust staffing and align the right health care professionals with the unique needs of each patient, along with the overall needs at each care location.

As state and local governments began to ease stay-at-home orders, Kaiser Permanente’s highest priority remained the health, safety, and well-being of our employees, physicians, members, and the communities we serve.

Throughout 2021, we put an emphasis on addressing care needs that may have been affected by earlier stages of the pandemic. Our physicians worked with patients to evaluate whether elective procedures could be safely scheduled or postponed. These steps helped ensure we could continue to provide the high-quality care our members needed while also managing respective surges.

The pandemic changed our lives in many unexpected ways, expanding innovative care solutions that make it easier and more convenient to get care. Throughout 2021, we extended the use of telehealth appointments via video and phone where appropriate, enabling many patients to access needed clinical care safely from home.

Nearly half of our outpatient care visits are now conducted virtually, including an average of 40,000 video visits per weekday. Our members have rated our video visits 4.4 out of 5 stars on average and when surveyed, 85% of respondents said they would be likely to select telehealth for their next primary care appointment.

Our mail-order pharmacy service filled an average of 116,000 prescriptions by mail each day, helping our members avoid unnecessary outings. Our teams adjusted resources and services to help meet the increased mail-to-home demand, which grew from one-third of all prescriptions before the pandemic to half of all prescriptions we dispensed in 2021.

Keeping front-line caregivers safe, so they can continue delivering care

The ongoing impact of this pandemic has made this an incredibly challenging and stressful time to work on the front lines of health care. We are extremely grateful for our front-line health care workforce, whose commitment to providing care and service throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of inspiring, as they demonstrate resilience, expertise, and compassion every day.

The pandemic created severe, persistent, worldwide shortages of essential health care supplies and equipment. We increased our personal protective equipment supply in 2021 — particularly masks and gowns — through proactive inventory management, expanding our suppliers, introducing new PPE options, and working closely with our health care teams to develop and improve conservation efforts. Together, these measures helped to ensure our staff had the right level of PPE needed to deliver care safely.

As a health care organization, Kaiser Permanente has an obligation to our more than 12 million members and patients — and to our employees, physicians, and communities to help ensure their safety and to protect them from infection. The vast majority of our front-line health care employees and physicians chose to be vaccinated in early 2021, a critical first step in the societywide vaccination that has helped control and will eventually end this terrible pandemic.

Working closely with union leadership, we acted in early August 2021 to protect the health and safety of our workforce and our communities by mandating vaccinations for all our employees and physicians. By the end of the year, 99% of our physicians and employees chose to be vaccinated or obtain a qualified exemption.

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves into an endemic, we will continue to support and protect our most critical resource — our people. We recognize the extra hours they have worked and the sacrifices they have made. Early in the pandemic response, Kaiser Permanente provided front-line employees with special benefits to support their health and safety including child care grants, COVID-19 paid leave, and temporary housing options.

We remain focused on addressing burnout and exhaustion, particularly in light of the many extraordinary challenges our people faced over the past 2 years.

Testing for COVID-19

In the first year of the pandemic, Kaiser Permanente acquired high-capacity testing equipment, built dedicated testing labs, and established some of the first drive-through testing facilities. As the need for testing grew in 2021, we leveraged all our resources to ensure that our staff, supplies, and services were ready to flex to tackle those demands, even when there were not enough testing machines and supplies available to meet the national and global demand.

healthcare worker dressed in scrubs in front of cars lined up for drive-up COVID-19 testing

By the end of 2021, Kaiser Permanente conducted more than 9.4 million COVID-19 diagnostic tests nationally, contributing substantially to community testing capability, as every test we are able to conduct for our members reduces the time and resources expended by public testing programs. By the end of the year, Kaiser Permanente was ordering tens of thousands of tests per day.

Protecting the health of our communities

Throughout 2021, Kaiser Permanente continued to deliver on our mission and support the health of our communities across a broad range of activities, grants, sponsorships, and programs. Our 2021 Community Health Snapshot provides a deeper view of this work.

janitor sterilizing surfaces in a medical care facility

Public health officials and health care researchers acknowledge the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths among racial and ethnic minority groups, including African Americans and Hispanics. National leaders attribute this to several factors, including access to health care and proper nutrition, higher rates of preexisting conditions, and other socioeconomic and environmental factors. People in these communities may be exposed to the coronavirus more often because of their work circumstances. The risk of infection is greater for workers in essential service roles and industries, and people who live in densely populated cities and conditions.

Racial and ethnic health disparities have become a national conversation during the pandemic. These disparities have existed for many years but are being viewed and examined anew due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kaiser Permanente has always had a deep and abiding commitment to health equity, long before this pandemic.

Our membership comprises nearly 40% people of color, with linguistic diversity exceeding 130 languages, and a total workforce composition that reflects and frequently exceeds the diversity of the communities we serve. We are ideally positioned to lead the nation in providing culturally responsive care that reduces and ultimately mitigates health disparities.

For more information on our work across a wide range of health equity initiatives, see our Annual Report section on Health Equity.

Moving forward together

Kaiser Permanente’s mission has guided our organization for more than 75 years, through good and challenging times. This mission continues to stand true, compelling us to move forward together with a shared calling and purpose.

The pandemic and events of the last 2 years have affected and changed all of us, including how we serve in our rapidly changing world. We have been inspired by the commitment of our people, grateful for the support they receive from those we serve, and excited about the opportunities to continue caring for people and improving the health of our communities.

We offer our gratitude, heartfelt thanks, and hope for a bright future.

Return to the 2021 Annual Report