U.S. advisory group lays out detailed recommendations on how to prioritize Covid-19 vaccine

Anew report that aims to prioritize groups to receive Covid-19 vaccine focuses on who is at risk, rather than using job categories or ethnic groups to determine who should be at the front of the line.

It was widely expected that health care workers would be the first priority grouping, and some — though not all — are. There were also many voices arguing for people of color to be given priority access, because the pandemic has exacted a disproportionately heavy toll on Black and Latinx people, both in terms of overall numbers of infections and deaths.

But in the end the panel of experts that wrote the priority setting framework for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine chose instead to focus on the factors that create the risk for some people of color — systemic racism that leads to higher levels of poor health and socioeconomic factors such as working in jobs that cannot be done from home or living in crowded settings. The report, a draft, was issued Tuesday.

“This virus has no sense of skin color. But it can exploit vulnerabilities,” said Bill Foege, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control, who is co-chair of the committee. The committee was set up by the National Academies at the request of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Foege said he expects pushback. A virtual public meeting on the recommendations will be held Wednesday afternoon, and written comments can be submitted until Friday. The committee’s final report will be submitted later in September.

When Covid-19 vaccines are approved for use, initial supplies will be tight — potentially in the tens of millions of doses. Most of the vaccines under development will require two doses per person: a priming dose followed by a booster either three or four weeks later.

The resulting recommendations put health workers in high risk settings and first responders to the very front of the vaccination line, in what the committee called the “jumpstart phase.” Closely behind are adults of any age who have medical conditions that put them at significantly higher risk of having severe disease, primarily heart or kidney failure or a body mass index of 40 and over. Also in this group are older adults living in long-term care homes or other crowded settings.

The report suggests that a second phase of vaccinations should involve critical risk workers — people in industries essential to the functioning of society — as well as teachers and school staff; people of all ages with an underlying health problem that moderately increases the risk of severe Covid-19; all older adults not vaccinated in the first phase; people in homeless shelters and group homes, and prisons; and staff working in these facilities.

Young adults, children, and workers in essential industries not vaccinated previously would make up the third priority group. Remaining Americans who were not vaccinated in the first three groups would be offered vaccine during a fourth and final phase.

The report is meant to serve as a guide for more detailed prioritization plans on the order in which Americans will be offered vaccine. That more granular work is already being conducted by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an expert panel that crafts vaccination guidance for the CDC, and by state, local, and tribal health authorities, who must identify the actual people in their regions who fall into the priority groups.

The ACIP’s recommendations will go to the CDC. It remains unclear, however, whether the CDC, Operation Warp Speed — the task force set up to fast-track development of Covid-19 vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics — or the White House will make the final determinations on who will be vaccinated first.

The draft report, produced in just a little over a month, earned some early praise.

“I think they did a really good job,” said Eric Toner of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Security, calling the report credible and based on sound reasoning.

Toner and colleagues published their own report on the issue recently, recommending two tiers. Health workers and others essential to the Covid-19 response in the first tier and other health workers in the second.

In that report, people at greatest risk and their caregivers, and workers most essential to maintaining core societal functions would also be designated to be in the first tier.

The task of determining who should be at the front of the vaccines line is not an easy one, and must be made without crucial pieces of information. It’s not yet known how many vaccines will prove to be successful, when they will be approved for use, and in what quantities. Critically, some vaccines may prove to be more effective in key groups — the elderly, for instance — than others. Knowing that in advance could influence the recommendations, but people working on the priority groups cannot wait for that information to become available.

Initial discussions suggest, depending on how some of the target groups are defined, large numbers of Americans would qualify as members of priority groups, a reality that will likely require additional tough decisions to be made.

The CDC estimates that there are between 17 million and 20 million health care workers in the country, and roughly 100 million people with medical conditions that put them at increased risk of severe illness if they contract Covid-19. There are roughly 53 million Americans aged 65 and older, and 100 million people in jobs designated as essential services. There is some overlap among these groups — health workers, for instance, are also essential workers.

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