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PA Has Yet To Announce Which Essential Workers Will Get COVID-19 Vaccine First

Rogelio V. Solis
Mississippi Air Guard Tech. Sgt. Exstrella Smith withdraws a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for injection into the arm of a Mississippi Air or Army National Guard service member who serves as a first responder, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

Essential workers will have the option to get the coronavirus before the general public, but details on how members of this vast and diverse group will be prioritized are scant.

Currently, health care workers and high-ranking government officials are the only people with access to the vaccine. In Pennsylvania, residents and employees of skilled nursing facilities will start getting vaccinated on Monday.

An advisory panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that essential workers and those over age 75 should be vaccinated next. Though the federal government issues formal suggestions on vaccine distribution, it is up to the states to decide whether to follow this advice or put forth other policies.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health has decided to go with federal guidelines, which defines essential workers as first responders, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, U.S. Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, and those who work in the education sector, as well as child care providers. However, it is not clear which members of this group will take priority.

“We’ll work out the logistics of how we’re getting that mission done ... and we’ll be working on it right away,” said state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine at a Wednesday morning news conference.

A spokesperson for the state health department said in an emailed statement that an estimated timeline on vaccination is unknown, partly because the production of the vaccines and allocations assigned to Pennsylvania is still not clear.

In the meantime, fewer than 5% of the state’s 900,000 health care workers have received the vaccine. Levine said the onus of vaccination has fallen to hospitals which were the first to receive vaccine shipments.

“It very important that [hospitals] continue to vaccinate health care workers facing the same risks in their own workplace, such as EMS providers, non-affiliated physicians and their staff and other stakeholders,” said Levine. “This particularly includes EMS agencies affiliated with their hospitals, as well as independent EMS agencies."

Levine said there have been some reports that hospitals have not been vaccinating EMS workers, whose job it is to enter situations where they are at heightened risk of coronavirus exposure, such as private homes.

The general population likely won’t have access to the vaccine until late spring or early summer, so Levine urged the public to continue to wear masks, not to gather with people outside their households, and adhere to other mitigation guidelines.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.