Vaccine panel prioritizes health care workers, long-term care residents

Baker: General public unlikely to gain access until April-June

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A FEDERAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE recommended on Tuesday that the initial supplies of COVID-19 vaccines expected to become available starting in two weeks should go to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities before being rolled out to other high-priority groups over the coming months.

Gov. Charlie Baker said the anticipated arrival of the vaccines means there is “light at the end of the tunnel,” but he cautioned that most of the general public won’t gain access to the shots until April, May, or June at the earliest.

The two vaccines awaiting emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration have been developed by Pfizer and Moderna. Both vaccines are said to be 94 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 and 100 percent effective in warding off severe cases of the disease. Each vaccine requires two shots, administered roughly four weeks apart, so even if someone is given an initial dose in December the final dose is unlikely to be taken until January.

“It’s going to take awhile before people literally start finishing the vaccine process and start to generate antibodies,” Baker said.

The 14-member federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 13-1 to prioritize vaccine distribution to an estimated 21 million frontline health care workers and 3 million residents of long-term care facilities. In its deliberations, the committee felt health care workers should be prioritized to safeguard the nation’s health care infrastructure as the second COVID-19 surge intensifies. Residents of long-term care facilities were included because their ranks have been decimated by the disease.

In Massachusetts, 64 percent of the 10,542 COVID-19 deaths have been residents of long-term care facilities. The average age of those dying from the disease is 81.

The lone negative vote on the advisory committee was cast by Helen Keipp Talbot, an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University. Her concerns centered on whether the vaccine was safe enough to support immunizing long-term care residents immediately.

The advisory committee’s decision, called an interim recommendation for now, goes to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could be revised if new information surfaces during the Food and Drug Administration’s review of the vaccines. The committee will make recommendations about the continued rollout of the vaccines in the coming weeks, but at its meeting on Tuesday it indicated the next priority groups would be essential workers and adults 65-years-old or older with high-risk medical conditions.

The Baker administration is expected to incorporate the advisory committee’s recommendation into its vaccine distribution plan, which is required to be filed with the federal government by Friday. Baker is not required to follow the federal recommendations, but his comments on Tuesday suggested he would hew close to them. The recommendation is also broad enough to give the governor wide latitude in distributing vaccines.

Baker said he does not intend to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations and he said they would not be provided to people under age 18. He said those under 18 are at relatively low risk of transmitting the virus to others and contracting the virus themselves.

“We can’t and I don’t think we would mandate in this particular case,” Baker said.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

It’s anticipated that about 40 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will become available by the end of the year, enough to treat 20 million people. The Baker administration has indicated previously that it would receive somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 doses initially.

Two other companies – Johnson & Johnson and Astra Zeneca – are still developing their vaccines. Each vaccine has different attributes. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for example, requires only one dose and can be stored at room temperature. The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses and must be stores at -94 degrees Fahrenheit.