CDC Panel Delves Into Priorities for COVID Vaccine Distribution

Kerry Dooley Young

November 25, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

On Monday, members of an influential federal panel delved into the challenges ahead in deciding who will get the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including questions about which healthcare workers need those initial vaccinations the most.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not take any votes or seek to establish formal positions. Instead, the meeting served as a forum for experts to discuss the thorny issues ahead. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could make a decision next month regarding clearance for the first COVID-19 vaccine.

An FDA advisory committee will meet December 10 to review the request for emergency use authorization (EUA) of a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer, in partnership with BioNTech. Moderna Inc said on November 16 that it expects to soon ask the FDA for an EUA of its rival COVID vaccine.

ACIP will face a two-part task after the FDA clears COVID-19 vaccines, said Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. ACIP will need to first decide whether to recommend use of the vaccine and then address the "complicated and difficult" question of which groups should get the initial limited quantities.

"There aren't any perfect decisions," she told the ACIP members. "I know this is something that most of you didn't anticipate doing, making these kinds of huge decisions in the midst of a pandemic."

There has been considerable public discussion of prioritization of COVID-19 vaccines, including a set of recommendations offered by a special committee created by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. In addition, CDC staff and members of ACIP outlined what they termed the "four ethical principles" meant to guide these decisions in a November 23 report in the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. These four principles are to maximize benefits and minimize harms; promote justice; mitigate health inequities; and promote transparency.

But as the issuing of the first EUA nears, it falls to ACIP to move beyond endorsing broad goals. The panel will need to make decisions as to which groups will have to wait for COVID-19 vaccines.

ACIP members on Monday delved into these kinds of more detailed questions, using a proposed three-stage model as a discussion point.

In phase 1a of this model, healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities would be the first people to be vaccinated. Phase 1b would include those deemed essential workers, including police officers, firefighters, and those in education, transportation, food, and agriculture sectors. Phase 1c would include adults with high-risk medical conditions and those aged 65 years and older.

ACIP member Grace M. Lee, MD, MPH, of Stanford University, Stanford, California, questioned whether healthcare workers who are not seeing patients in person should wait to get the vaccines. There has been a marked rise in the use of telehealth during the pandemic, which has spared some clinicians from in-person COVID-19 patient visits in their practices.

"Close partnership with our public health colleagues will be critically important to make sure that we are not trying to vaccinate 100% of our healthcare workforce, if some proportion of our workforce can work from home," Lee said.

ACIP member Pablo Sánchez, MD, of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, concurred. Some clinicians, he noted, may have better access to personal protective equipment than others, he said.

"Unfortunately, not all healthcare workers are equal in terms of risk," Sánchez said. "Within institutions, we're going to have to prioritize which ones will get" the vaccine.

Clinicians may also make judgments about their own risk and need for early access to COVID-19 vaccinations, Sánchez said.

"I'm 66, and I'd rather give it to somebody much older and sicker than me," he said.

Broader Access

Fairly large populations will essentially be competing for limited doses of the first vaccines to reach the market.

The overlap is significant in the four priority groups put forward by CDC. The CDC staff estimated that about 21 million people would fall into the healthcare personnel category, which includes hospital staff, pharmacists, and those working in long-term care facilities. There are about 87 million people in the essential workers groups. More than 100 million adults in the United States, such as those with diabetes and cancers, fall into the high-risk medical conditions group. Another 53 million people are aged 65 and older.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on November 18 said the federal government expects to have about 40 million doses of these two vaccines by the end of December, which is enough to provide the two-dose regimen for about 20 million. If all goes as expected, Pfizer and Moderna will ramp up production.

Moderna has said that it expects by the end of this year to have approximately 20 million doses of its vaccine ready to ship in the United States and that it is on track to manufacture 500 million to 1 billion doses globally in 2021. Pfizer and BioNTech have said they expect to produce globally up to 50 million doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.

At the Monday meeting, several ACIP panelists stressed the need to ensure that essential workers get early doses of vaccines.

In many cases, these workers serve in jobs with significant public interaction and live in poor communities. They put themselves and their families at risk. Many of them lack the resources to take precautions available to those better able to isolate, said ACIP member Beth Bell, MD, MPH, of the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.

"These essential workers are out there putting themselves at risk to allow the rest of us to socially distance," she said. "Recognizing that not all of them may want to be vaccinated at this stage, we need to provide them with the opportunity early on in the process."

In Bell's view, the initial rollout of COVID-19 vaccines will send an important message about sharing this resource.

"If we're serious about valuing equity, we need to have that baked in early on in the vaccination program," she said.

Bell also said she was in favor of including people living in nursing homes in the initial wave of vaccinations. Concerns were raised about the frailty of this population.

"Given the mortality impact on the healthcare system from the number of nursing home residents that have been dying, I think on balance it makes sense to include them in phase 1a," Bell said.

Other ACIP panelists said missteps with early vaccination of people in nursing homes could undermine faith in the treatments. Because of the ages and medical conditions of people in nursing homes, many of them may die after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Such deaths would not be associated with vaccine, but the medical community would not yet have evidence to disprove a connection.

There could be a backlash, with people falsely linking the death of a grandparent to the vaccine.

Fellow ACIP member Robert L. Atmar, MD, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, was among those who had raised concerns about including people living in long-term care facilities in phase 1a. He said there are not yet enough data to judge the balance of benefits and harms of vaccination for this population.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are "reactagenic," meaning people may not feel well in the days after receiving the shots. The symptoms could lead to additional health evaluations of older people in nursing homes as clinicians try to figure out whether the patient's reactions to the vaccine are caused by some condition or infection, Atmar said.

"Those of us who see these patients in the hospital recognize that there are often medical interventions that are done in the pursuit of a diagnosis, of a change in clinical status, that in and of themselves can lead to harm," Atmar said.

Clinicians likely will have to encourage their patients of all ages to receive second doses of COVID-19 vaccines, despite the malaise they may provoke.

"We really need to make patients aware that this is not going to be a walk in the park. I mean, they're going to know they had a vaccine, they're probably not going to feel wonderful, but they've got to come back for that second dose," said Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, MD, who represented the American Medical Association.

ACIP is expected to meet again to offer specific recommendations on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. ACIP's recommendations trigger reimbursement processes, Azar said at a Tuesday press conference. ACIP's work will inform decisions made by the federal government and governors about deploying shipments of COVID-19 vaccines, he said.

"At the end of the day, that is a decision, though, of the US government to make, which is where to recommend the prioritization," Azar said. "It will be our nation's governors in implementing the distribution plans to tell us" where to ship the vaccine.

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