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Sorting Out Who Would Get The 1st Doses Of A COVID-19 Vaccine

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We are in the middle of a dark winter. Almost 3,000 people died from COVID-19 yesterday. That is a record. To put that another way, 125 people died every hour. And another first - more than 100,000 people are now hospitalized with the virus.

But we may be at the beginning of the end of this pandemic. The Food and Drug Administration could give its approval for the COVID-19 vaccine as early as next week. Lynn Bahta is a member of the CDC's vaccine advisory panel, and she's going to talk us through how vaccine distribution is going to work.

Good morning.

LYNN BAHTA: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are you taking into consideration when you decide who gets the vaccine first?

BAHTA: There's kind of three considerations. What is the data telling us about who has been impacted the most by coronavirus? The other is, how can we capture the best number of doses for getting vaccine into those individuals? And then the third, which has been very important and has been driving a lot of our discussions, is what ethical principles drive us? And so we've really been using those three things to balance out which populations will get that first trickle of doses before it's available to all people who want it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I'd like to dig into that. The CDC voted Tuesday to recommend that residents of nursing homes and health care workers get the first doses of the vaccine. But I understand there aren't actually enough doses to vaccinate everyone in those groups. You mention a trickle. So how will it be decided who goes first?

BAHTA: Well, we have started to make that decision. We provided some guidance on Tuesday. And again, where we were seeing impact were on people who were exposed to ill persons. And so those would be health care workers, people working in those health settings, whether it's a hospital or a nursing home. That's where sickness occurs, and that's where a lot of our health care workers are getting exposed. And so that's a critical piece.

We also were looking at who's been most severely impacted by COVID.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just to be clear, individual states, though, will decide exactly who will be administered. What you've done is give guidelines.

BAHTA: Correct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So are you concerned about individual states making those decisions? You might get different calls in different places about which health care workers should be prioritized.

BAHTA: Definitely. We - I think we've already gotten those calls. And I think that each state is going to know their populations the best, which is why these are guidances; they're broad. There may be certain areas or certain parts geographically that have been harder hit where states may want to use that information - local information to create their priority groups.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But just briefly, doesn't that just feed into this patchwork response that we've seen in this country which has led to the situation that we're now?

BAHTA: I think it's more important for people to realize that these doses aren't just going to be stagnant, that these doses are going to continue to come. And so week by week, there will be more doses and more people will have the opportunity to get vaccinated. We're fortunate that we have been able to make the doses we have before the product has even been licensed. And that's part of that program of doing simultaneous work to make a vaccine available as quickly as possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to talk about certain groups, specifically Blacks and Latinos, who have been especially hard hit by the virus; essential workers who work in supermarkets and in, you know, meatpacking plants. Do you think they should be prioritized?

BAHTA: Definitely. I think that - what we've been discussing in terms of highest priority are those who are health care personnel, those who are essential workers. And that would include non-health care workers who provide either essential public services or who have been providing services to get food on the table...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But not prioritizing someone due to their race or ethnicity.

BAHTA: What we have seen is that within that group of essential workers, there is a greater representation of Blacks, Latinx and other persons of color, especially in those businesses that had to stay open while the rest of states may have shut down.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lynn Bahta is a senior public health nurse and an adviser for the Minnesota Department of Health. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.