Striking a compromise between two high-risk population groups, a panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted Sunday to recommend that people 75 and older be next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the United States, along with about 30 million “frontline essential workers,” including emergency responders, teachers and grocery store employees.
The debate about who should receive the vaccine in these early months has grown increasingly urgent as the daily tally of cases has swelled to numbers unimaginable even a month ago. The country has already begun vaccinating health care workers, and on Monday, CVS and Walgreens were to begin a mass vaccination campaign at the nation’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities. This week roughly six million doses of the newly authorized Moderna vaccine are to start arriving at more than 3,700 locations around the country, including many smaller and rural hospitals.
The panel of doctors and public health experts had previously indicated it would recommend a much broader group of Americans defined as essential workers — about 87 million people with jobs designated by a division of the Department of Homeland Security as critical to keeping society functioning — as the next priority population and that elderly people who live independently should come later.
But in hours of discussion on Sunday, the committee members concluded that given the limited initial supply of vaccine and the higher Covid-19 death rate among elderly Americans, it made more sense to allow the oldest among them to go next along with workers at the highest risk of exposure to the virus.
Groups of essential workers, such as construction and food service workers, the committee said, would be eligible for the next wave. Members did clarify that local organizations had great flexibility to make those determinations.
“I feel very strongly we do need to have that balance of saving lives and keeping our infrastructure in place,” said Dr. Helen Talbot, a member of the panel and infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Together, the two groups the committee voted to prioritize on Sunday number about 51 million people; federal health officials have estimated that there should be enough vaccine supply to inoculate all of them before the end of February.
Still, as the first week of vaccinations in the U.S. came to a close, frustrations were flaring about the pace of distribution. This weekend Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who heads the Trump administration’s distribution effort, apologized for more than a dozen states learning at the last minute that they would receive fewer doses next week of the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer than they had expected. Tensions were also broiling in some states over local decisions regarding which health care workers should get their shots immediately and which should wait.
The director of the C.D.C., Dr. Robert Redfield, will review the panel’s recommendation and decide, likely by Monday, whether to embrace it as the agency’s official guidance to states. The panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, emphasized that its recommendations were nonbinding and that every state would be able to fine-tune or adjust them to serve the unique needs of its population.
The 13-to-1 vote came as frustrations flared about the pace of vaccine distribution. Some 128,000 shots have been given in the first five days of the vaccine United States, according to a New York Times database tracking vaccinations — just slightly more than half the number of new cases reported across the country on Friday alone. This weekend, Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who heads the Trump administration’s distribution effort, apologized for at least 14 states learning at the last minute that they would receive fewer doses of the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer next week than they had expected. Tensions were also flaring in some states over local decisions regarding which health care workers should get their shots immediately, and which should wait.
In addition to teachers, firefighters and police, a subgroup of the committee suggested that “frontline essential workers” should include school support staff; day care, corrections personnel, public transit, grocery store and postal workers; and those in working in food production and manufacturing. But the group’s official recommendation is not that specific.
The committee had signaled last month that they had been inclined to let 87 million essential workers receive vaccines ahead of adults 65 and older. Many had expressed their alarm that essential workers, who are often low-wage people of color, were being hit disproportionately hard by the virus and additionally were disadvantaged because of their lesser access to good health care.
In a strongly worded statement before the panel’s vote on Sunday, its chairman, Dr. Jose R. Romero, the Arkansas secretary of health, pushed back against a recent flood of often vicious accusations that the panel was prioritizing other racial groups over white people. “Our attempt has been always to achieve equitable ethical and fair distribution of that resource. We have never targeted a specific ethnic nor racial group for receipt of the vaccine,” he said.