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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

COVID-19 Vaccines Are Here, But Who Gets Priority?

With COVID-19 raging at all-time levels throughout U.S., highly efficacious vaccines are coming, but in limited supply. That raises the question, who will get priority? Lobbying by big unions and large companies to get their employees vaccinated first is intense. This lobbying risks leaving non-union employees, small businesses and individual practitioners out in the cold. On Monday, December 21, I shared my views on this subject on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street (https://cnb.cx/37DQrRy).

On Sunday afternoon the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) vaccine advisory committee rearranged priorities for vaccine distribution. With health care workers and those in long-term care facilities receiving their vaccines in December as Group 1a, CDC has designated people 75 and older and a select group of essential workers as Group 1b. They will be next in line after health care workers and employees of long-term care facilities. Included in this latter group are K-12 teachers and staff, day care; food and agriculture workers; correctional facilities; postal and public transit workers; and manufacturing and grocery store workers – a total of 49 million people in 1b.

With the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines now approved in the U.S., the two companies have committed to deliver 200 million doses for 100 million people by the end of February. This of course does not take in account any unforeseen manufacturing glitches and distribution problems, both of which are quite possible. That is just enough doses for Groups 1a and 1b. Meanwhile, big unions and big companies are lobbying furiously to get their people vaccinated. They have now shifted their lobbying from the CDC to the statehouses, most of whom have not set up clear priorities for distribution. Lobbyists for Amazon, Uber, Lyft, and United Food Union are pressing hard form their members to gain early access (https://wapo.st/3h61Axz).

Yet their employees for the most part have secure jobs and the companies have adequate financial resources to keep going until the U.S. economy recovers. Not so for small businesses and individual practitioners whose financial resources are depleted and may not survive the cold winter months. Their non-union workers are at greatest risk of finding themselves out of work with nowhere to turn. If they do not get early access, the risk is that they will close their doors, causing the economic recovery to take much longer. If this were to happen, low-wage workers, many of whom are people of color, will suffer the economic consequences, while the large companies continue to flourish.

The solution? States and municipalities should set up vaccine advisory councils, independent of lobbying influence, to make determinations for vaccine priority distribution. Their priorities should be focused on people and businesses with the greatest health care and economic risk. If they get themselves and their employees vaccinated, these individual practitioners and small businesses can give confidence to consumers to return to using their services, which is essential for economic recovery.

Meanwhile, big companies and big unions should “stay in their lanes” and wait their turn to get their employees vaccinated. To their credit, Walmart, Disney and New York Stock Exchange have taken this position. Others should take the high road and follow their example.

In this way we can ensure equity in the distribution process and a faster economic recovery.