Updated 5:48 p.m. ET
A federal advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted Tuesday to recommend who should get COVID-19 vaccines first once one is authorized for use.
The 14 voting members of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, along with representatives from federal science agencies and the health care industry, voted during an emergency meeting online to recommend that the first COVID-19 vaccines should go to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living.
The CDC estimates that most people in these high-priority groups could be fully vaccinated by early next year if the Food and Drug Administration authorizes a vaccine by mid-December, as is currently anticipated.
But because supplies will be short in the first few weeks after that authorization, individual health care and long-term care facilities will likely need to determine their own priority schedules for vaccination once they've obtained the vaccine. Long-term care facilities include nursing homes, assisted living and other residential facilities.
The CDC estimates that 48 million doses will be needed to vaccinate these groups, which account for about 24 million people. It's anticipated that as many as 40 million doses could be available by the end of December, with 5 million to 10 million available each week afterward.
The recommendations from the independent advisory committee now go to CDC Director Robert Redfield for final approval.
The issue of which risk groups should be prioritized for a COVID-19 vaccine has been a key topic at the group's regular public meetings over the past several months. The committee's goal is to use a COVID-19 vaccine to reduce severe illness and death from the disease and to lessen disruptions to society and the economy from the pandemic.
In earlier meetings, the committee has considered four overlapping groups that might receive priority access to COVID-19 vaccines while immunizations are in short supply. The groups include health care workers and other essential workers who have a higher risk of exposure to the virus. Also included are people 65 and over and those with certain underlying medical conditions who are more likely to become severely ill if they contract COVID-19.
Health care workers have long been considered to be first in line because they are exposed directly to COVID-19 through their work, and because protecting them and their patients from the virus would help reduce the spread of the coronavirus and keep the health system running.
What's been more controversial is whether to add nursing home residents and other long-term care facility residents to the initial priority group. (Staffers at these facilities are considered health care workers.) At a public meeting last week, members of the committee agreed that the death toll in this population, a subgroup of the over-65 category, has been severe. Staff and residents at long-term care facilities represent just 6% of confirmed coronavirus cases but account for nearly 40% of COVID-19 deaths.
Still, some committee members raised concerns about giving newly authorized COVID-19 vaccines to nursing home residents. "This population is not a population that's been studied in the vaccine trials," said Dr. Robert Atmar, a professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, during last week's meeting.
Older people who are participating in vaccine trials are generally in good health, while nursing home residents are often frail. "Coming back to the science of it, we really are not able to assess the balance of benefits and harms," he said.
Another committee member worried that introducing COVID-19 vaccines first to nursing home residents could erode public confidence in the safety of the vaccines. Given the high mortality rate in long-term care facilities, it's likely that some nursing home patients who receive COVID-19 vaccines could die shortly after from other causes, said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot, an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
"I think you're going to have a very striking backlash of, 'My grandmother got the vaccine and she passed away.' They're not likely to be related, but that will become remembered," she said.
Before a COVID-19 vaccine is recommended for use among nursing home residents, Talbot suggested running a limited clinical trial in this population to gather data that would show the vaccine is safe for this group.
Tuesday's vote comes in advance of a COVID-19 vaccine receiving FDA authorization. The CDC committee previously said it would wait for authorization before making vaccine recommendations. But in recent weeks, it has undergone pressure from the federal government to move faster.
"We are not dependent on any delay from [the advisory committee] in terms of helping to advise states," Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, said at a Nov. 24 press briefing, discussing his intent to move quickly with the vaccine distribution process.
States will use the CDC guidance as they place orders for COVID-19 vaccine doses. Their first orders are due to the federal government Friday.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Who should be in line for a COVID-19 vaccine here in the U.S.? That was the decision facing the CDC vaccine advisory committee. They voted on Tuesday, deciding that health care workers, as well as residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, should be the priority. NPR's Pien Huang reports.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Two COVID-19 vaccines are up for FDA consideration this month, but even if they do get OK'd by the FDA, Dr. Amanda Cohn from the CDC says that, at first, there won't be enough for everyone.
AMANDA COHN: The initial doses of any COVID-19 vaccine will be limited. We expect a constrained supply environment for some months and need to make the best use of available vaccine.
HUANG: Cohn spoke at an emergency meeting of the CDC's vaccine advisory committee. For months, the committee has been reviewing the science and ethics of vaccine distribution. Yesterday, they voted to put health care workers and long-term care facility residents first in line for COVID-19 vaccines when one is available.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSE ROMERO: Dr. Bernstein?
HENRY BERNSTEIN: Bernstein, yes.
HUANG: The vote was almost unanimous.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROMERO: Dr. Frey?
SHARON FREY: Frey, yes.
HUANG: It passed with 13 yeses and one no from a member who worried about putting nursing home residents first because the vaccines have not yet been proven safe in frail, older adults. Long-term care facilities have seen very high death rates during the pandemic. They account for 6% of COVID cases and 40% of deaths. So the committee decided that the possibility of saving the lives of nursing home residents outweighs the risks.
Vaccine distribution is expected to come in phases. Health care workers, and now long-term care residents, will go first. Other groups of people at high risk will follow. It will be months, at least, before a vaccine is widely available to most adults. So for now, as COVID cases escalate around the country, health experts say it's important to continue wearing masks, keep physical distance and stay out of crowded indoor spaces. Pien Huang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.