The “essential” employees who have kept meat and poultry available during the pandemic should be at or near the front of the line for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine,  on that there is rare agreement up and down the industry.

After months of pandemic rancor, it appears there is finally widespread agreement on the prioritization of meat and poultry plant workers for receiving the vaccine already available in the United Kingdom. Distribution in the United States is expected to begin later this week.

Meat and poultry industry stakeholders ranging from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and many others are calling for prioritizing employee vaccinations.

Meat and poultry employees have clearly been at risk, especially since the Defense Production Act (DPA) was used to force meat and poultry production facilities to keep running through the pandemic.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents meat plant workers, reports 128 meat plant worker deaths and 19,800 workers infected or exposed to the virus.

“America’s grocery, meatpacking, and food processing workers have been on the frontlines of this deadly pandemic since day one, putting themselves in harm’s way to feed our families during this crisis,” UFCW said in a statement. “As COVID-19 cases skyrocket, hundreds of these essential workers have already died and thousands more are infected daily as they serve our country by keeping our food supply secure.

“As the largest union for America’s essential workers in grocery, meatpacking, and food processing, UFCW is calling on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to prioritize these brave men and women for early access to the COVID-19 vaccine immediately after health care workers. Protecting our country’s food workers is essential to keeping our communities safe and stopping future outbreaks in these high-exposure workplaces. CDC Director Redfield must recognize the vital role these essential workers serve by ensuring that they are among the first to receive access to the COVID-19 vaccine.”

“The men and women of the meat and poultry industry help keep America’s grocery stores stocked and our farm economy working,” said Julie Anna Potts, president, and CEO of NAMI. “They should be highly prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination, following our nation’s brave health care workers.”

NAMI said the meat industry has spent more than $1 billion to implement recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) — such as  physical adaptations to facilities, personal protective equipment, enhanced sanitation, advanced ventilation systems, extensive testing and contact tracing, enhanced health care services, and more — aimed at protecting and supporting meat plant workers.

“The meat and poultry industry was among the first sectors to be challenged with the pandemic, and since March the industry has implemented effective programs and controls to stop the spread of COVID,” Potts said. “Our efforts are working, but access to vaccines remains the most critical tool to protect this critical infrastructure workforce.”

NAMI added that including meat plant workers in the first phase of vaccinations would:

  • Increase health equity as the workforce is highly diverse and includes populations the CDC has identified as greatly affected by COVID-19;
  • Strengthen vaccine distribution in rural communities with limited health care infrastructure, where meat and poultry facilities are major employers; and
  • Maximize efficiency using existing protocols and procedures that make meat and poultry facilities ideal locations to efficiently distribute vaccines, especially those facilities with medical staff on site.

In written comments to the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), KatieRose McCullough, director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs for NAMI, said, “. . . Cases amongst meatpacking facility employees have decreased significantly, but vaccination remains a critical tool for effectively protecting meatpacking employees while keeping America’s farms working and grocery stores stocked.”

 LULAC, which advocates for Hispanic Americans, said meatpacking workers have been on the frontline delivering products and “deserve to be protected as soon as possible.”

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and German drugmaker BioNTech is on the agenda Thursday of FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee for emergency use authorization. Approval could come as early as Friday by the FDA Commissionerc

Earlier the CDC advisory committee recommended the top priority for the first 24 million vaccines in the U.S. go to healthcare professionals and elderly residents of long-term care facilities

Coming closely behind the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are two additional COVID-19 vaccinations, one by the biotech firm Moderna and the other from AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company.

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