Who gets coronavirus vaccine first? Influential panel weighs in.

Health care workers and nursing home residents should get the first doses, a prominent advisory committee said Tuesday.

MIAMI – Health care workers and nursing home residents should be at the front of the line when the first coronavirus vaccine shots become available, an influential government advisory panel said Tuesday.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 13-1 to recommend priority be given to those groups in the first days of any coming vaccination program, when doses are expected to be very limited.

The two priority groups encompass around 24 million Americans out of a U.S. population of about 330 million.

The COVID-19 vaccines first need approval by the Food and Drug Administration, and those recommendations made to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are just that — recommendations. It will be up to states as to how they want to distribute the vaccines.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Aileen Marty of Florida International University says the decision hinges on how to make the biggest impact in curbing hospitalizations and saving lives.

“We’re going to have to prioritize, and you have to base it on where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck,” Marty said.

State health officials have until Friday to have their distribution plans submitted to the federal government.

Florida has a draft vaccination plan which lays out a phased approach — focusing first on healthcare providers, then essential workers, followed by the medically frail and those over the age of 65.

Charlotte Mather-Taylor, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging of Broward County, says many seniors who have spent the year in isolation are desperate for a vaccine.

“Of course everyone wants to be first on the list, and the biggest issue, as you mentioned, is where do seniors stand on the priority list?” Mather-Taylor said. “If you’re in a long-term care facility, of course, you’re worried about catching it from one of your neighbors. Your family members aren’t coming to visit you as much, and so there’s a sense of loneliness that occurs.”

About 2 million people nationally are living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Those patients and the staff members who care for them have accounted for 6% of the nation’s coronavirus cases and a staggering 39% of the deaths, CDC officials say.

The outbreak in the United States has killed nearly 270,000 people and caused more than 13.5 million confirmed infections, with deaths, hospitalizations and cases rocketing in recent weeks.

Florida on Tuesday passed 1 million cases, becoming the third state to do so.

Later this month, the Food and Drug Administration will consider authorizing emergency use of two vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna. Current estimates project that no more than 20 million doses of each vaccine will be available by the end of 2020. And each product requires two doses. As a result, the shots will be rationed in the early stages.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet again at some point to decide who should be next in line. Among the possibilities: teachers, police, firefighters and workers in other essential fields such as food production and transportation; the elderly; and people with underlying medical conditions.

“We’re not going to have enough vaccine for everybody right away,” Marty said. “It takes time to build up the supply to give everyone their two doses. So yes, we’re going to have to prioritize.”

About the Authors:

Amy Viteri is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who joined Local 10 News in September 2015. She's currently an investigative reporter and enjoys uncovering issues facing South Florida communities. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, she's happy to be back in South Florida, where she earned a masters degree at the University of Miami.