MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Health care workers and residents in long-term care facilities should be the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. That is the decision of a CDC vaccine advisory committee. They voted today. The CDC estimates most people in these high-priority groups could be fully vaccinated by early next year if a vaccine is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration by mid-December. That is the current expectation. NPR health reporter Pien Huang joins us now.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So I know because we had the chair of this committee on the show a few weeks back that they have been working on these recommendations for a while. Is there a significance to the timing, to the decision to vote today?
HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. So the committee voted today so that states can actually make use of their advice as they order their first COVID vaccines. States are putting in vaccine preorders to the federal government this Friday even though no vaccines have yet been authorized. But two COVID vaccine candidates are under consideration for emergency use by the FDA, so they're putting in these orders in case a vaccine does get authorized for use later this month.
KELLY: OK. So important point there to stress - that we await a ruling from the FDA. If and when the vaccine - these vaccines do get authorized, today's vote is about what will happen in these first early weeks - right? - while supplies are tight.
HUANG: Absolutely. Yeah, so the group's vote today addresses what's going to happen in those initial weeks, like you said, when supplies are going to be very limited. So that group includes the nation's 21 million health care workers, and it also includes the 3 million people living in long-term care facilities like nursing homes, assisted living facilities and residential homes.
KELLY: Although, is there enough vaccine to cover even those limited groups in the early weeks? Or are they going to have to prioritize within these groups?
HUANG: Right. I mean, if you add up the number of health care workers and people living in long-term care facilities, it adds up to about 24 million people. So the first batch that the government's sending out contains only about 6 million doses. The CDC says it's useful for state and local health authorities to consider things like, you know, even within that health care worker group, is this a health care worker that has direct contact with patients or one that handles infectious materials?
If it's someone that can telework, they might move to the back of this line. And also, if it's someone who had the coronavirus before, maybe they move to the back of the line too. But they said there should be enough vaccine available to give most people in this group two vaccine doses very soon. Here's the CDC's Amanda Cohn at today's meeting.
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AMANDA COHN: We anticipate having about 40 million doses - so enough to cover somewhere between 15 and 20 million individuals, which does cover a large portion of health care workers - by the end of December.
HUANG: Now, this is a best-case scenario, but their thinking is that health care workers might wait weeks and not months for a shot at a vaccine.
KELLY: So the process as it will unfold is the federal government will send vaccine supplies to states based on population. And it's expected the states will follow these CDC guidelines, although they don't have to. They're not binding. Meanwhile, what about other high-risk groups? When might they get vaccines?
HUANG: Yeah, so as you pointed out, today's vote just covers the very first phase of vaccine distribution. It's phase 1a. Other high-risk groups are expected to follow, probably early next year. So this includes essential workers like bus drivers and factory workers and teachers and also older people and those with underlying conditions. One thing the committee still isn't sure about is where those who are pregnant and breastfeeding will fit into this picture. The vaccine hasn't been tested in this group, so there's no concrete data yet on whether it's safe and effective for them.
KELLY: And meanwhile, we're looking at a long winter. If the vaccine does come in December, how much could it help?
HUANG: Yeah. I mean, certainly, a vaccine would protect most of the people who get two doses of it from getting the disease, but whether it stops the coronavirus from spreading widely will depend on how many people decide to get it. And during this three-hour meeting, Dr. Beth Bell, a committee member, gave a pretty grim reminder.
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BETH BELL: Since we're averaging one COVID death per minute in the United States right now, in the time it takes us to have this meeting, 180 people will have died from COVID-19.
KELLY: All right, an update there from NPR's Pien Huang.
Thank you, Pien.
HUANG: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.