Race heats up for workers getting early access to COVID-19 vaccine

Race heats up for workers getting early access to COVID-19 vaccine
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Business groups from various industries are ramping up efforts to get their workers near the front of the line for the COVID-19 vaccine now that distribution plans are taking shape.

While there’s widespread agreement that health care and other front-line workers should be the first recipients, the competition for the second and third tiers has business leaders making their case to the state-level agencies that will largely be responsible for deciding who comes next.

Manufacturers, airlines, banks and the food industry are all pushing for their workers to receive the vaccine sooner rather than later.


A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended that health workers and residents of long-term care facilities should be the first recipients as part of “phase 1a” and has discussed making sure essential workers are prioritized in “phase 1b.”

The list of essential workers published by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) during the pandemic included medical and health care, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, and law enforcement.

Public health officials are optimistic that states won’t deviate much from the ACIP recommendations.

“States will probably follow whatever recommendations that ACIP will come out with,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Still, there is concern that some states could differ in terms of distribution.

“We’re very concerned about it. Our preference would have been for the federal government to set the recommendation not just as a recommendation but as a mandate,” said Mark Parkinson, CEO of the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living.


Beyond health care and other front-line workers, states will likely vary in terms of which essential workers get the vaccine. For example, public transportation workers may be prioritized in New York but not Iowa, while food packing plant workers may be prioritized in South Dakota but not in Northeastern states.

“You got to let data drive that. I’ve always argued that this has got to be a risk-based decision,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “I think if we use risk as a defining element, we can make some rational decisions around who gets it at what point. That coupled with the fact that tragically, we still have some vaccine hesitancy, I think we should be OK.”

Consumer packaged goods manufacturers are included in CISA’s list of essential workers, and the industry’s advocacy group, the Consumer Brands Association, is pushing for its workers to be prioritized in phase 1b.

“The industry needs state health departments to provide distribution clarity, consistent with federal guidance, to avoid hiccups and get essential workers vaccinated as quickly as possible. We’re already seeing a 10 percent absentee rate as a result of COVID, and to keep facilities running at maximum capacity, timely vaccination of our essential workers is paramount,” said Bryan Zumwalt, executive vice president of public affairs for the Consumer Brands Association.

Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. carriers, is urging the Trump administration and states to prioritize front-line commercial aviation employees.

“The safety and wellbeing of passengers and crew has been — and continues to be — the top priority of U.S. airlines. Throughout this health crisis, U.S. airlines have provided essential services such as transporting medical personnel and shipping critical supplies, which will include vaccine distribution as soon as they receive approval,” a spokesman for the trade group said.

The American Bankers Association (ABA), which advocates for banks like JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, also has workers on the essential list and wants to see them prioritized by states.

“In our discussions with public health agencies, ABA has advocated that among bank employees already deemed ‘essential’ by the government, those that come in contact with the public every day, such as tellers, should be considered for the CDC’s Phase 1b along with essential workers in other industries,” a spokesperson told The Hill.

Health care workers are likely to receive the vaccine at their place of employment once it’s available. For other industries, it could get complicated to ensure someone receiving the vaccine is an essential worker.

“For essential workers, they’re at work and will have to do the vaccination at the workplace, that’s one way to validate it. I think people will be innovative,” Benjamin said.

Plescia said states are likely to wait and see whether there’s a huge rush to be near the front of the line given how many Americans are still skeptical about taking the vaccine.

“I suspect states will try to see how big of a problem that turns out to be,” he said. “I’m anticipating people are going to be a little reticent to begin with to get the vaccine and let other people go first.”

Other industries that are in discussions over when their workers will receive the vaccine include retail and restaurants.

“The CDC has made it clear that health care workers will be among the first to receive the vaccine, and that should include retail-level pharmacy workers, especially since they will play an important role in delivering the vaccine. Groceries are also critical, so those workers should also be near the top of the list,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation.

Restaurants are impacted by food supply chain employees, a group the National Restaurant Association wants to see prioritized.

“Prioritizing testing and vaccine distribution for food supply chain employees after health care, first responders and vulnerable populations will help ensure the food supply chain to our communities and ensure that the agriculture industry and restaurant industry employees will be safe selling and serving healthy food even in times of crisis,” said Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the group.