The Trump administration’s plans for distributing COVID-19 vaccines put a priority on inoculating workers in the food and agriculture sector, but how quickly the shots become available to the industry still depends to some extent on how fast the vaccine can be distributed.

According to interim guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late October, the priority populations in the first phase of vaccine distribution include health care personnel exposed to COVID patients, essential workers employed outside of health care, adults with high-risk medical conditions and people over 65 years of age.

The document indicates some people in the phase-one group may not get inoculated until the second and third phases of distribution, depending on availability of vaccines, the first of which is nearing approval. 

A separate CDC presentation to an advisory committee on Monday evaluated vaccine distribution priorities based on three ethical principles: maximizing benefits and minimizing harms; promoting justice, and mitigating health inequities. 

The analysis said that the 87 million essential workers in non-healthcare sectors such as food and ag were unable to work from home, increasing their exposure to the virus, and were disproportionately from racial and ethnic minorities. About one in four essential workers also are from low-income households, according to the analysis. 

Food and agribusiness groups have sent separate letters to the Trump administration and to the transition officials with President-elect Joe Biden appealing to them to prioritize the vaccination of food and agriculture workers, who the Homeland Security Department classified as essential workers at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic

In a Nov. 18 letter to Biden, the groups said, “Once a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed and approved for distribution, it is imperative that the federal government, led by your administration, prioritize our nation’s food, agriculture, and retail workers for vaccination among other key population groups, to help keep workers healthy and to ensure that agricultural and food supply chains remain operating. 

“Our industries stand ready to partner with your administration to ensure a strong, coordinated public education campaign brings widespread and sustained acceptance of vaccinations among the public.” 

The groups that signed the letter included the American Bakers Association, Consumer Brands Association, FMI-The Food Industry Association (representing national and regional supermarket chains), International Dairy Foods Association, National Restaurant Association, North American Meat Institute and the United Fresh Produce Association.

In a note to members last week, the International Dairy Foods Association said it has confirmed “in conversations and meetings with FDA officials, and through recently published materials … that food industry workers are considered essential and a priority population” for the vaccine.

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IDFA spokesman Matt Herrick said based on the draft CDC guidance, his group is “confident that the federal government will prioritize food and agricultural workers due to the nature of their work as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure industries.”

The first phase of distribution, according to the CDC plan, assumes a limited supply of vaccines and calls for starting with health care personnel who are potentially exposed to the virus.

Phase two of the plan assumes a “large number of doses” are available and calls for inoculating remaining groups from phase one and expanding to the general population. The distribution program moves into phase three when there are sufficient doses for the entire U.S. population. 

Three vaccines have shown strong promise so far, and the Food and Drug Administration has scheduled an advisory committee meeting Dec. 10 to consider approving one produced by Pfizer Inc. and Germany-based BioNTech Manufacturing.

States are also finalizing their own plans, and industry sources say they are tracking close to the CDC in prioritizing populations. The draft version of California's phased plan mirrors the CDC's, with essential workers outside of health care included in "phase 1-B." Among the priority populations in Texas' plan are "frontline" employees, including workers in food and agriculture. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers International union also is working with employers and calling for industry workers to be given priority for the vaccines. "For the sake of our food supply and protecting essential workers, UFCW is working with elected and business leaders across the country to ensure that these critical frontline workers are prioritized for early access to a vaccine as they continue to keep our food supply secure during this crisis," said union Vice President Mark Lauritsen.

Meatpacking giant Tyson Foods Inc. is working with outside medical experts, including Matrix Medical, on planning and distribution models for the Tyson workforce. The goal is to “enable our team members to get access to a vaccine when one becomes available in a timely manner,” said spokesman Derek Burleson. 

Tyson is one of several meat processors that have struggled to contain outbreaks at plants. He said the company is testing “thousands of workers a week, including employees who have no symptoms." 

Last week, the company suspended without pay some employees who were allegedly betting on how many workers at a Waterloo, Iowa, packing plant would get ill from COVID-19. The company also hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the allegations that were made in amendments to a lawsuit filed against the company by the family of a Tyson employee who died. 

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