‘Big fight' over who should get Covid-19 vaccine first

‘Big fight’ breaks out over which interest groups get Covid-19 vaccine first

Some states, like Illinois, are awaiting further federal guidance for allocation beyond the initial vaccine supplies

Representative Image. Credit: AFP Photo

The chief executive of Uber, the ride-hailing company whose six New York lobbying firms include Albany’s best connected, wrote last week to Gov. Andrew Cuomo with an ask: priority for its drivers in the next round of coronavirus vaccinations.

Days later, the president of New York’s largest transit union spoke about the same topic with the chair of the state transit authority, a Cuomo appointee. Not to be outdone, the Hotel Trades Council, a hospitality labor group with an aggressive political arm, urged the state’s health commissioner in a letter Tuesday to give priority to its members.

Even a presidential elector had hoped to chat with the governor about who was getting vaccine priority — after they both took part in New York’s Electoral College vote.

Political horse-trading is routine in state capitals, but Albany has a particularly long tradition of behind-the-scenes deals. Now, as the coronavirus rages and vaccines remain in short supply, the pandemic has been thrust squarely into the maw of New York politics.

A state official described the next stage of vaccine prioritisation as “the big fight.”

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“Everyone is chasing the same thing now, and it really is remarkable,” said James McMahon, a veteran Albany lobbyist who represents a school bus company and other firms interested in early vaccination. “The need was there, and then there’s the vaccine, and all of a sudden, people are saying, ‘Oh, Jesus, we’ve got to get in line now.’”

Apparently attuned to the atmosphere, Cuomo made several pronouncements this past week that his administration would not be swayed by interest groups.

“There will be no political favoritism,” the governor said in a news conference Wednesday, a message he repeated Friday.

The question of where groups of workers stand in the line for vaccines has yet to be resolved in New York or in a majority of other states, according to a review by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. The federal government is expected to issue final recommendations on who should be deemed essential soon. But it is largely up to states to prioritise vaccine distribution among those workers.

Some states, like Illinois, are awaiting further federal guidance for allocation beyond the initial vaccine supplies.

Others have provided some details. Colorado officials have said ski industry employees living in congregate settings would be part of the early vaccine rounds. Health officials in Georgia and Arkansas are including workers in meatpacking or food processing plants.

In New York, emergency responders like police officers, transit workers and those who maintain power grids and other critical infrastructure will almost certainly be part of the next wave, according to a state plan.

But the remaining uncertainty has led to clamoring for consideration in state capitols and in Washington from a wide array of businesses and workers. Tens of millions of Americans, designated as essential, continue to toil amid the pandemic’s dangers while others work from home.

The list of those who qualified as essential in New York in order to continue working through virus-related shutdowns stretched from chiropractors to landscapers to bicycle mechanics. That long list has allowed all sorts of industries to claim they should also be among the first for the vaccine.

Rich Maroko, president of the Hotel Trades Council, wrote a letter to state health officials in which he made the case for the 35,000 hotel employees the union represents in the city.

“These workers have continued to put themselves at risk and have worked throughout this pandemic performing services that are critical to the State of New York,” he wrote.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents 40,000 workers in New York, including grocery-store workers, said he had reached out to state officials but had yet to hear back.

State officials said they would be making their determinations based on a combination of factors, including the nature of the industry and the health risks of individual people. That would include creating a hierarchy of essential workers and at-risk individuals in the general population for the purpose of getting a vaccine.

And it would also hinge on a simpler matter of supply. New York’s initial allotment of the Pfizer vaccine, the first to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration, was 170,000 doses, barely enough to start covering the projected 1.8 million people categorised in phase one. The state expects to soon get a shipment of 346,000 doses from the drugmaker Moderna, whose vaccine received emergency approval Friday.

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“It’s all going to be related to the number of doses that we get,” said Robert Mujica, the state budget director. “But we will do an assessment that’s based on the risk and the number of contacts of the individual’s activity, and also the risk profile of the individual.”

For example, Mujica said, an older person living at home might be vaccinated before a young cable repairman. “If you’re focused on preventing death, then the 30-year-old cable guy is probably less at risk than the 90-year-old person at home,” he said.

The governor’s office has referred inquiries it receives to the Health Department, and Cuomo has tried to distance himself from the fray.

A birthday fundraiser held over Zoom on Thursday allowed the governor to collect campaign cash without having to engage in small talk with the assembled lobbyists and donors. At the in-person Electoral College vote Monday, he departed without mingling with any of the attendees, including those who might have pressed him about vaccine priority, according to two people who were there.

Even so, businesses have begun reaching out to their lobbyists about the vaccine: banks interested for their tellers, cable companies asking about their repair people, a television news channel concerned about its journalists.

In fact, some business executives are worried about pushback from their employees if they are not seen as aggressively pursuing vaccine priority for them, or backlash from the public if a company is perceived to be jumping the line.

Eric Soufer, a New York-based political strategist, said he had been contacted by numerous firms, from app-based companies to retail stores, seeking advice.

“If your workers go first and you win that argument based on a political appeal, who are you bumping behind you?” he said. “You may push further back people who many public health experts say should go before you. It may be a cohort that the public feels should be treated more urgently than you.”

That hasn’t stopped industries that believe they have a credible claim from going public with their pleas, using a combination of data and emotional appeals to make their case.

Uber’s letter to Cuomo said that its tens of thousands of drivers and food delivery workers should receive priority because of their role transporting health care workers to hospitals and helping local restaurants stay afloat. They joined teachers unions in seeking to move up in the line.

A trade group representing landlords of rent-stabilised buildings in New York City issued a release asking that superintendents and building maintenance staff members receive vaccines immediately.

The union for building maintenance workers, 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which has 175,000 members nationally, has also been in contact with the state, a spokesperson said.

Consolidated Edison has already received reassurance from state officials that its approximately 4,000 to 5,000 customer-facing, critical workers will be prioritised.

“There have been conversations, and we understand that we’re on that next group after health care workers,” said Jamie McShane, director of media relations at the energy company.

Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents 40,000 city bus and subway workers, said he had talked with Patrick Foye, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair who is appointed by Cuomo, about including his members and expected that they would be included in the next round.

An advisory panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already signaled that it could include a big chunk of the U.S. population: about 87 million essential workers, including police officers, firefighters, teachers, farmworkers, transit workers and others.

The CDC is expected to issue its guidance soon.

In the meantime, companies and groups nationwide have told the federal agency why they should be part of the next wave of vaccinations.

Agricultural workers, from rice farmers to hog farmers, have jockeyed for priority, as have trade associations representing school nurses, truck drivers, morticians and even zookeepers.

The Navajo Nation has reached out on behalf of its 170,000 residents in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The American Parkinson Disease Association is looking to secure priority for people with Parkinson’s, citing acute complications from Covid-19, like hallucinations.

But it is states, not the federal government, that will have the final say on who gets priority. And it is there where the most intense lobbying is expected to take place over the next few months.

For Suzanne Rajczi, chief executive of Ginsberg’s Foods, a family-owned company in Hudson, New York, that means convincing officials that her more than 250 workers are critical in the distribution of food to restaurants, hospitals, schools and nursing homes in the Northeast.

But her needs are bound to clash with those of others, like Neil Strahl, president of Pioneer Transportation Corp., a school bus company with New York City school contracts, who wrote to Cuomo this month.

“We haven’t heard anything, but that’s understandable,” he said. “I’m sure trying to figure out priority is a very tall task.”