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COVID-19

Which essential workers should be prioritized for vaccines?

Meghan McCarty Carino Dec 11, 2020
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Farm laborers wash their hands before work in April in Greenfield, California. How are "essential workers" classified when it comes to vaccine distribution? Brent Stirton/Getty Images
COVID-19

Which essential workers should be prioritized for vaccines?

Meghan McCarty Carino Dec 11, 2020
Heard on:
Farm laborers wash their hands before work in April in Greenfield, California. How are "essential workers" classified when it comes to vaccine distribution? Brent Stirton/Getty Images
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Americans could start to receive doses of the first COVID-19 vaccine next week. Frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities will be first to get the shots, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. Essential workers will be considered next, but with limited vaccine doses and a lot of workers considered essential, the jockeying has already started over which ones should go to the front of the line.

Federal guidelines consider almost 70% of Americans to be working in essential industries. So there are now a slew of companies and trade groups making their cases to federal and state authorities.

“There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a healthy fight over who should be prioritized when it comes to access to vaccines,” said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the Consumer Brands Association.

His organization is fighting for packaged goods workers who keep things like toilet paper and cleaning supplies on shelves.

KatieRose McCullough, director of scientific and regulatory affairs for the North American Meat Institute, is making the case for meatpacking workers.

“When we aren’t able to operate safely for our employees, what happens is a backup of food,” she said, noting many meat and poultry workers come from vulnerable populations and have limited access to health care in the rural areas they live.

Pilots, bankers, ride-share drivers and other groups say their workers need the vaccine first.

“These are really complicated decisions, and we have to balance the tradeoffs,” said Francine Blau, a Cornell University labor economist. Some workers have greater contact with the public, some keep food and supplies flowing, while some are important to society’s functioning, like teachers.

“We really have learned how essential schools are to our economy,” said Kathi Griffin, the president of the Illinois Education Association. She said while many educators are able to work remotely, getting them safely back into classrooms will benefit children and their parents, who can then focus on their own jobs.

The CDC will continue to consider how to best distribute the vaccine, but ultimately it’s up to each state to decide who gets the shots when. Currently, some states include teachers as a priority, while others put them behind prison guards and food workers.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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