Supermarket pharmacy staff will be among the nation’s first group of recipients of COVID-19 vaccines, with food industry workers following in the next phase, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) panel.
In a work group meeting yesterday, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) proposed health care personnel and long-term care facility (LTCF) residents — an estimated 24 million people — for Phase 1a of U.S. coronavirus vaccination allocation. That includes health care professionals in hospitals, emergency medical services, pharmacies, outpatient clinics, home health care, and public health and long-term care facilities, as well as residents of skilled nursing and assisted living centers and other residential care facilities.
So far, two companies have filed with the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 immunizations, including Pfizer/BioNTech (submitted Nov. 20) and Moderna (submitted Nov. 30), the ACIP reported.
“When a COVID-19 vaccine is authorized by FDA and recommended by ACIP, health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities should be offered vaccination in the initial phase of the COVID-19 vaccination program (Phase 1a),” the ACIP said in its interim recommendation yesterday.
The urgency to vaccinate health care staff and LTCF residents against coronavirus is borne out by the numbers, the ACIP noted. Through Nov. 30, CDC data show at least 243,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 858 deaths from the virus among health personnel, putting a strain on the nation’s health care system at a time of great need, the committee said. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 impact on long-term care has been devastating, with residents and staff representing 6% of the coronavirus cases and 40% of the deaths in the U.S. through Nov. 24, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data cited by the ACIP.
“The importance of the COVID-19 vaccine and a convenient, efficient and safe delivery of the vaccine cannot be overstated. Supermarket pharmacies stand ready to play a significant role in administering COVID-19 vaccines to the public when they are available. In the interim, supermarkets are working diligently to provide food, cleaning products and the full range of pharmacy services — including flu and other vaccinations — to support Americans’ health and well-being,” Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI-The Food Industry Association, said late Tuesday in a statement on the ACIP’s recommendation.
Sarasin noted the supermarket industry’s large retail health care footprint, including 12,000 FMI member-operated pharmacies that already provide immunization services and health care counseling to customers.
“According to FMI research, supermarket pharmacies currently provide 20% of the nation’s flu vaccines. Furthermore, with the appropriate resources, supermarket pharmacists will dramatically expand access to COVID-19 vaccinations and rapidly advance our nation’s immunization program, similar to the role many FMI members played with the H1N1 vaccination effort,” she explained. “Importantly, supermarket pharmacies already reach underserved and vulnerable communities, sometimes as the only local provider of care. Thus, leveraging pharmacy-based immunizations is imperative to reaching a greater number of Americans in neighborhoods nationwide, including communities disproportionately impacted by the virus.”
The ACIP’s recommendation also reflects the view of a majority of Americans. Citing a Harris poll in mid-August, the committee said 73% of U.S. adults surveyed think health care workers should receive priority when COVID-19 vaccines become available, followed by people ages 55 and older (71%) and immunocompromised people (68%). Next on the priority list for the coronavirus vaccine were essential workers (cited by 60% of respondents), fire/rescue/police personnel (56%), teachers (44%) and people living in the highest-incidence areas (34%).
Essential workers, including grocery and food industry employees, are earmarked for COVID-19 immunization in Phase 1b of the vaccine allocation, the ACIP reported. That group includes food and agriculture, education, utility, police, fire fighters, corrections officers and transportation workers, among others, according to the committee. Coming next in Phase 1c will be adults with high-risk medical conditions and those ages 65 and older.
Ahead of the ACIP meeting, the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union urged the CDC to prioritize food industry employees in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. UFCW noted that grocery store, meatpacking and food processing workers have been at the forefront of the pandemic since its start and face an escalating threat as incidence of the virus mounts nationwide.
“As the largest union for America’s essential workers in grocery, meatpacking and food processing, UFCW is calling on the CDC to prioritize these brave men and women for early access to the COVID-19 vaccine immediately after health care workers,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “Protecting our country’s food workers is essential to keeping our communities safe and stopping future outbreaks in these high-exposure workplaces. CDC Director Redfield must recognize the vital role these essential workers serve by ensuring that they are among the first to receive access to the COVID-19 vaccine.”
UFCW reported that its membership has seen over 17,400 grocery workers infected or exposed to the virus, including at least 109 deaths. In meatpacking plants, more than 19,800 member workers have been infected or exposed to the virus, with at least 128 deaths.
“America’s grocery, meatpacking and food processing workers have been on the front lines of this deadly pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to feed our families during this crisis,” Perrone added. “As COVID-19 cases skyrocket, hundreds of these essential workers have already died, and thousands more are infected daily as they serve our country by keeping our food supply secure.”
Overall among UFCW members — who also include retail, health care and workers from other industries — there have been at least 48,000 frontline workers infected or exposed to COVID-19, including at least 350 deaths, the union said.
“These essential workers are out there putting themselves at risk to allow the rest of us to socially distance,” Beth Bell, ACIP COVID-19 vaccine working group chair and a University of Washington global health expert, said in a statement. “And they come from disadvantaged situations, they come from disadvantaged communities.”
Through Wednesday afternoon, U.S. COVID-19 cases totaled nearly 13.8 million, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. U.S. deaths from the virus stood at 271,347, or more than 18% of the almost 1.5 million global deaths from the disease.
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