As industries in the United States push their workers for early access to COVID-19 vaccines, local health departments and pharmacies face the challenge of verifying the identity of essential workers to ensure no one is crossing the line.
The current vaccination campaign is now focusing on Hospital staff and nursing homes – tightly controlled environments where verification is relatively straightforward. But starting in January or February, Americans employed in a range of industries will be eligible for inoculation, provided they are essential frontline workers.
The lack of a job verification plan for vaccine candidates and confusion over who qualifies as essential increases the risk of fraud and disorganization.
Who decides which worker is essential?
The criteria for qualifying as an essential frontline worker vary from state to state. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that about 30 million essential workers will be next to get vaccinated. An additional 57 million essential workers will be vaccinated later.
The absence of clear guidelines will significantly complicate the verification process when these workers seek to be vaccinated.
The United States has two licensed COVID-19 vaccines, one of Pfizer and BioNTech and another from Modern. Vaccines are rolling out as hospitals reach capacity and deaths have exceeded 317,000 people.
The US Department of Homeland Security released a list of essential US workers during the pandemic in March.
The list covers nearly 70 percent of the U.S. workforce and has provided little clarity to health officials trying to hand out initially limited doses of vaccines.
Over the summer, many states began to develop their own priority lists, sometimes referring to the importance of local industries. States generally have wide discretion in the distribution of vaccines.
This has resulted in a patchwork of guidelines across the country, with companies complaining that their workers are considered essential in one state but not in another.
A panel of experts advising the CDC on Sunday recommended that people aged 75 and older and workers, including first responders, teachers, food and agriculture, manufacturing, the U.S. Postal Service, transit and grocery store workers, have the next priority for vaccines.
Some US states have indicated that they will nonetheless continue to implement the distribution plans they originally drafted.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said he intends to prioritize people over 65 in his state, over essential workers.
“As we move into the wider community, vaccines are going to be targeted where the risk is greatest, which is our elderly population,” he said at a conference. press Tuesday, “We are not going to give the healthy young workers a head start in our elderly and vulnerable population.”
FL is prioritizing our elderly population for COVID-19 vaccination. We are seeing progress for residents of LTC facilities and we will not put young and healthy “core” employees ahead of our general population 65 and over when it comes to vaccine delivery. pic.twitter.com/adbqIHjUiK
– Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) December 23, 2020
Michael Einhorn, president of New York medical supply distributor Dealmed, criticized decisions by health officials to prioritize essential workers for the next phase of the vaccine, rather than distributing it by age.
“There will be people who try to cut the line and commit fraud to get a vaccine,” said Einhorn, whose company has been involved in distributing flu shots.
How will eligibility be confirmed?
It is not yet clear how health services and pharmacies will verify the identity of a significantly larger and diverse group of people eligible for the next round of vaccines.
Pharmacy operators CVS, Walgreens and Kroger each referred to state and local guidelines when asked how they would check essential workers.
“If the jurisdiction requests Walgreens support, Walgreens will issue a voucher or authorization form that the individual can use to make an appointment for a vaccination,” a Walgreens spokesperson said in a statement.
CVS said it will share more information once it gets closer to the next phase of vaccine distribution in the first quarter of 2021.
Kroger in a statement said he would require customers to book an appointment online and use a screening tool to manage the verification process.
“In some cases, the state will identify and verify individuals before they are referred to us for vaccination,” a Kroger spokeswoman said.
States have not indicated how they will verify the identity of workers. Companies that want to vaccinate their workers are exploring different options.
The Consumer Brands Association, which represents food, beverage, personal care and household products companies, and the Food Industry Association, which represents food retailers, said they are developing template letters for employees to verify their status as essential worker.
“We understand that states may have different naming standards, but (we are working) to provide our members with a resource to help reduce confusion,” a spokesperson for the Food Industry Association said in a statement.