When Will First Responders, Other Frontline Workers Receive COVID-19 Vaccines?

No precise answer exists, but public sector human resources professionals must act now to formulate plans for ensuring that the employees they serve can take shots as soon as possible.

A CDC panel of immunology experts on Dec. 20, 2020, recommended that “frontline essential workers” be among the next group of Americans to receive vaccinations against COVID-19. That advice did not come with a timeline, but it is clear that government employees who interact with members of the public to provide health care, ensure public safety and deliver services meet the definition of essential frontline workers.

A first complication each agency and department will encounter is that fewer than 20 million doses of vaccine from Pfizer and Moderna will ship within the United States by the end of 2020. Experts expect the FDA to license Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine for emergency use by mid-January, but limited supplies will largely restrict vaccinations to nursing home residents and health care providers in hospitals and long-term care facilities for many weeks.

A second consideration is that each state and locality sets its own priorities for vaccinating first responders and frontline workers. In addition to the rankings of firefighters, EMTs, teachers and school staff, police and other public sector employees as most-essential, individuals’ age, current duties and other health conditions may be taken into account. Governors and state health departments are developing guidelines, and the initial guidance is likely to evolve.

Next, each agency and department must decide whether to make taking the shots mandatory. The EEOC indicated on Dec. 16, 2020, that employers can require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition for remaining employed or returning to work. Any such requirement must allow for religious and disability accommodations.

On the positive side, money to purchase, distribute and administer vaccines is included in the second COVID-19 relief package that was adopted just as Congress shut down for the year. States, counties and cities may need to supplement those funds, however.

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