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CDC Says Front-Line Essential Workers, Elderly Should Be Next For Vaccine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Millions of doses of vaccine are on their way to help the U.S. fight the coronavirus pandemic. It's a turning point in the country's fight against the virus. And as the massive effort to distribute and administer vaccines continues, Americans have a lot of questions. How do vaccines work? What are the ethics around who gets one and when? And how should you talk to someone who's hesitant? We are devoting much of this hour to answering those questions - your questions.

But we're going to begin with the latest news. Earlier today, a panel of expert advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrestled with the thorny question of who should be next in line to receive the vaccine. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us now with their verdict. Rob, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So health care workers and residents and workers at long-term care facilities are the first in line to get vaccinated. Who might come next?

STEIN: Yeah, so that's the really tough question that this group of doctors and infectious disease experts and public health officials and epidemiologists struggled over all day today. The plan has been to include so-called essential workers, elderly people and people at high risk because they have some other health problems. But those are huge groups, so these advisers had to sort through how to prioritize within those groups. Here's how Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC put it at the beginning of the meeting today.

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NANCY MESSONNIER: We have a limited supply of vaccine available to us. What that means is that there will be difficult choices about who gets that vaccine first.

MARTIN: So, Rob, what did the committee recommend?

STEIN: Yeah, so the CDC proposed that the next group include what the CDC calls frontline essential workers. That would include people like cops and firefighters, teachers, prison guards, postal workers, bus drivers and grocery store workers. And, you know, that would allow room for the CDC to also include everyone ages 75 and older in that next group that should get vaccinated. After that, the CDC proposed the next group include other essential workers - you know, like construction workers, power company employees and water company and food service workers - also anyone ages 65 to 74 and anyone 16 to 64 who has other health problems that put them at risk, like obesity, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, cancer.

And there's a lot of discussion. You know, some of the experts thought more older people and people with health problems, especially those who are still working, should get higher priority. But after more than four hours of discussion, the committee voted 13 to 1 to endorse the CDC's recommendations. Several experts said they agonized over this tough decision, but they knew they had to make it. Here's what Dr. Peter Szilagyi at UCLA said at the end of the meeting.

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PETER SZILAGYI: It was a difficult decision for me - really difficult - because I truly wish everyone could get the vaccine today. We are trying to thread the needle here.

MARTIN: I can see that. So what comes next?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, the really hard work will have to happen on the state and local level. These are still huge groups. You know, the CDC estimates that about 49 million people are in the next group, and then another 129 million in the group that comes next after that. So it'll be up to each locality to sort of sort through all these groups and decide who ends up at the head of the line. It'll probably vary a lot around the country depending on the location and their particular situation. And some committee members voiced some concern to make sure there's no abuse at the local level, that everybody's given a fair shot.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Rob, how have things been going so far?

STEIN: You know, mostly it seems OK, but there definitely have been some snags. You know, some vaccine got too cold. There was a lot of confusion about how much vaccine states would get this week. And everybody's been keeping a really close eye on those handful of really nasty allergic reactions that have popped up.

This week, about 8 million more doses are being shipped out of the two vaccines that have been authorized so far by the FDA. And officials are predicting they'll have enough vaccine to immunize about 100 million people by the end of February. You know, it remains to be seen whether it actually ends all - ends up happening that fast. But, you know, fingers crossed.

MARTIN: All right. Fingers crossed. You got that right. That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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