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Health experts reassure union members that COVID vaccines are safe, effective

Health experts reassure union members that COVID vaccines are safe, effective
By Pete Levine ·

The nation’s four largest public sector unions, AFSCME, SEIU, AFT and NEA, sponsored a virtual town hall with leading scientific experts, academics and government officials to explain the safety, efficacy and equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines.

A big goal of Tuesday night’s town hall was to reassure union members that the vaccines are safe and effective and that they shouldn’t hesitate to get vaccinated when it’s their turn.

More than 8 million members of the four unions have been on the front lines of the pandemic, serving their communities, caring for the sick and the elderly, and keeping our cities, towns and schools functioning. Many of them will be among the first to receive the vaccines.

The experts’ responses offered a window into not only how the vaccines were developed safely, but how experts prioritized vaccine distribution equitably, across diverse communities.

The town hall was moderated by Dr. David Michaels of the George Washington University School of Public Health, who served in the Obama administration and is a member of the Biden-Harris COVID advisory board.

Michaels asked Dr. Peter Marks of the Food and Drug Administration, which evaluates the safety and efficacy of vaccine candidates, to explain the criteria by which the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the two currently available in the U.S., were given emergency authorization.

“They met a clear efficacy end point … and they are about 95% effective across the entire age range, from 18 on up,” Marks said. “They were equally effective in a variety of ethnic and racial  backgrounds, including the Black and Latinx communities.”

Marks noted that while they were comfortable with the vaccine’s “safety profile,” they did not have the follow-up data from trial participants that extended 6 months or one year beyond vaccination, as is typical.

Nevertheless, Marks said, “The process has led us to feel very comfortable recommending these vaccines, and they make us comfortable enough that we’re willing to take them and recommend others take them.”

In fact, AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who is in a priority age category, received his first dose of the vaccine Tuesday, and said he’s eager to receive his second dose.

After the FDA does its part, explained Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC provides another “check and balance” by also reviewing the safety and efficacy data. The next step, according to Messonnier, is for the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization and Practices (ACIP) to develop a framework for prioritizing and distributing vaccines.

ACIP members agreed that health care staff should be the first to receive the COVID vaccines.

“Those in the first group were front-line health care workers, and residents and staff of long-term care facilities,” Messonnier said.

The next group that ACIP targeted was “essential workers and those at higher risk because of their age.”

“Essential workers like you all, whose jobs put you in the front lines ... and makes you essential to the rest of society’s functioning” would be among the first to receive the vaccine, she told union members.

Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust and a respected voice in health care equity, serves as co-chair of the Committee on Equitable Allocation of Vaccines for the Novel Coronavirus, which also recommended who should receive the vaccines and in what order.

Gayle described the process by which the vaccine would be offered to under-served and overlooked communities, and how to meet those communities’ needs. Key factors that her group considered were how to build on the vaccine infrastructure our nation already uses, how to prevent the cost of the vaccines from being a barrier to receiving it, and how to overcome hesitancy over getting vaccinated.

Gayle and her team worked with community-based organizations to help educate diverse communities that may be mistrustful of the health care system.

“It was important that we had messengers who could share our message in ways that were credible, and that they see people who they trust taking the vaccine,” Gayle said.

An AFSCME member asked how a safe vaccine could be produced so quickly.

Marks replied that the FDA was able to eliminate the “dead space,” the months and even years that can typically occur between phases of trials. Also, an established vaccine development process was already in place prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, giving researchers a running start on developing vaccines to fight the coronavirus.

“There were no corners cut here,” Marks said. “We can feel very comfortable that the things that needed to be checked were checked.”

Learn More

To watch the roundtable in its entirety and listen to other questions posed by union members, please visit our Facebook page. To access a document that answers common questions and concerns about the COVID vaccines, go here.

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