BOISE, Idaho — Prioritizing COVID-19 vaccine distribution to essential convenience-store and grocery workers has become a hot-button issue in Idaho following Gov. Brad Little’s release of an state Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) timeline detailing the vaccine rollout.
Early in the pandemic, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) designated convenience, retail fuel and foodservice workers as essential under its Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers Guidance and has renewed this guidance.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended in December that c-store, gas-station and foodservice workers should be prioritized to receive the vaccine in the phase of inoculations following health care workers, the elderly and essential workers such as police officers and teachers. The committee released a prioritized list as guidance for state and local governments in planning their inoculation strategies, including the order in which the recipients should be vaccinated.
In December, Little convened the Idaho COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee (CVAC) to advise him on and assist state and local entities with the prioritization of vaccines. The state based its vaccine prioritization ranking on federal guidance and CVAC input, state officials said.
“The availability of the safe COVID-19 vaccine is a lifeline in our pandemic fight, and I know there are a lot of questions about vaccine distribution,” Little said.
According to the CVAC, the first group—which began vaccinations in December 2020—includes healthcare and emergency medical personnel, pharmacy workers and long-term care facility staff and residents, among others. Along with c-store and grocery workers, the second group, set to begin vaccination in February, includes police, fire fighters, teachers, daycare workers and adults 75 years of age or older, among others. Before the vaccine becomes available to the general public in May, the third priority group, set to begin vaccination in April, includes adults 65 years of age or older and people between 16 and 64 with medical conditions that increase the risk for severe COVID-19, among others.
Callers on a AARP Idaho virtual town hall on Dec. 5 questioned why c-store workers have been prioritized over seniors between 65 and 75, the age group most susceptible to COVID-19.
“Idaho’s plan to prioritize folks like convenience-store workers and construction workers over older Idahoans is just plain wrong. Older Idahoans are dying, not construction of convenience-store workers,” one caller among those critical of the prioritization plan said. “Why doesn’t the plan reflect this?”
Beyond health care workers, “shouldn’t we vaccinate those most likely to get the virus and die from it?”, another caller asked.
“The people who have the most exposure … are our No. 1 priority,” Little said on the call, referring to health care and essential workers. “But believe me, senior citizens are a top priority.”
“Some of those essential workers are vectors for spread that have been exposed all along in this. And that’s why some of those essential workers that have that everyday exposure are in that group,” he said. “We are trying to slow the spread. We’re trying to save lives and save health care capacity. So sometimes it’s not a direct relationship, it’s a somewhat indirect relationship. People that have a broad exposure … the risk of them being very sick or dying is one thing, but the risk of them infecting somebody has a much higher chance.”
“The delicate balance of managing a limited supply of vaccine against the most vulnerable populations and those that are the most likely to be spreading the disease and are needed to make sure that our economy continues to run is a debate that continues on the national level,” said DHW Director Dave Jeppesen said on the call.
State officials on a Dec. 5 Idaho DHW virtual town hall said that CVAC could decide to lower the age for the second group from 75 to 65 or move the 65-75 age group ahead of the c-store and other essential workers.