Essential workers are vying for vaccine prioritization ahead of CDC recommendations

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- This weekend, a committee of medical and public health experts will meet to discuss who should be prioritized for limited doses of the COVID-19 vaccine after healthcare workers and long-term care residents.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) will ultimately finalize recommendations that will be adopted by the CDC as a non-binding advisory for states. In previous meetings, ACIP has indicated support for prioritizing essential workers (Phase 1b), followed by those with high-risk medical conditions and people over 65 (Phase 1c).

The problem is that’s a huge group of people and it will likely take months to get through them all. In the past, Virginia Health and Human Resources Secretary Dr. Daniel Carey has said millions could meet that criteria in the Commonwealth alone.

Virginia to receive fewer COVID-19 vaccines doses than expected

Assuming supplies will be insufficient to vaccinate everyone in these categories initially, health officials in Virginia will have some difficult decisions to make moving forward.

SOURCE: Virginia Department of Health

The choice heath officials face is whether to begin by vaccinating those at the highest risk of death or the highest risk of exposure. States have come to different conclusions, according to a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

As of December 14th, KFF found that 30 states were still developing criteria for these next phases. Of the 21 with criteria, 8 followed ACIP’s preliminary advice for Phase 1b and 5 followed them for 1c.

The main differences lie in where states place people ages 65 and older and those with high risk medical conditions, relative to essential workers. For example, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee each prioritize those 65+ and/or those with high risk medical conditions over non-health essential workers; North Carolina and Tennessee prioritize those with high risk medical conditions over those ages 65 and older.

Kaiser Family Foundation

On Friday, the Virginia Department of Health declined 8New’s interview request and, in a statement, the agency didn’t provide any information about how they’re planning to prioritize essential workers, the medically vulnerable or sub-groups within those categories.

“Vaccine will be provided to Virginians in a way that is fair, ethical, and transparent,” said VDH Public Relations Coordinator Tammie Smith in an email.

A recent VDH presentation seems to suggest that the state is preparing to prioritize essential workers next, though the slide notes that this could change based on ACIP’s recommendations.

SOURCE: Virginia Department of Health

Among essential workers alone, there are several groups vying to be at the top of the list as some data suggests 70 percent of Virginia’s workforce meets this definition.

Virginia Education Association President Dr. James Fedderman said vaccinating teachers needs to be a priority.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to get back to teaching and learning within school buildings but that has to be done with health and safety as our number one priority,” Fedderman said.

James City County Police Chief Brad Rinehimer said he was on a call with state health officials early this week. Based on that conversation, he anticipates law enforcement officers and other first responders will be close to the top of Phase 1b.

“Unlike some workers, police officers don’t have the option of working from home,” Rinehimer said. “We force our police officers into very close physical contact with people. We have no idea about their background or whether they may already be infected with the virus.” 

Delivery drivers, airport staff and bus operators are also lobbying for early vaccinations. Carrie Rose Pace with GRTC, the public transportation service in Richmond, said they’ve had 40 COVID-19 cases among their employees and one death since the pandemic started.

“We are essential workers moving essential workers. So many of our passengers are getting to and from jobs at grocery stores, corner CVS and Walgreen’s and of course medical facilities,” Rose said. “The stability of our community in many respects depends on GRTC.”

Frontline workers who staff major grocery stores and retailers are also pushing for prioritization. Lisa Harris, a Kroger cashier in Mechanicsville, said she comes into contact with hundreds everyday.

“This whole year has been very stressful for anyone who meets the public face-to-face,” Harris said. “People stay in their homes and don’t really give the person serving them a second thought. We need a second thought.” 

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