Explainer-U.S. vaccine rollout's next challenge: Verifying who is 'essential'

By Tina Bellon and Melissa Fares
(Reuters) - As U.S. industry pushes for its workers to have early access to COVID-19 vaccines, local health departments and pharmacies face the challenge of verifying the identities of essential workers to make sure no one crosses the border exceeds.
The ongoing vaccination campaign is now focused on hospital staff and nursing homes, tightly controlled environments where verification is relatively easy. But as of January or February, Americans who work in a number of industries can be vaccinated, provided they are key frontline workers.
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The lack of a plan to review vaccine candidates' jobs and confusion over who will be considered material increases the risk of fraud and disorganization.
The criteria for qualifying as a key frontline worker vary from state to state. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 30 million critical workers will be next in line for a shot. Another 57 million key workers will be vaccinated later.
The lack of clear guidelines will make the review process much more difficult as these staff will look for shots.
There are two approved COVID-19 vaccines in the United States, one from Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE and one from Moderna Inc. The vaccines will be launched once hospitals reach their maximum capacity and the death toll exceeds 317,000.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a list of key U.S. workers during the pandemic in March. https://bit.ly/3aBDtFx
The list covers nearly 70% of the U.S. workforce and has given little clarity to health officials trying to hand out initially limited doses of vaccines.
Many states began developing their own priority lists in the summer, at times taking into account the importance of local industry. States generally have wide discretion in the distribution of vaccines.
This has resulted in a patchwork of policies across the country, with companies complaining that their workers are seen as essential in one state but not in another.
A panel of experts advising the CDC on Sunday recommended that people ages 75 and up and workers including first responders, teachers, food and agriculture, manufacturing, U.S. Post, public transit workers and grocery stores should be the next priority for the vaccines .
Some US states have indicated that they will continue with the distribution plans originally drawn up.
Michael Einhorn, president of New York medical supplies distributor Dealmed, criticized health officials' decision to prioritize key workers for the next phase of the vaccine rather than age-group it.
"There will be people who will try to cross the line and commit fraud to get a vaccine," said Einhorn, whose company was involved in distributing flu vaccines.
It is not yet clear how health departments and pharmacies will verify the identity of a much larger and more diverse group of people eligible for the next round of vaccination.
Pharmacy operators CVS, Walgreens, and Kroger Co cited state and local guidelines, respectively, when asked how they would screen essential workers.
"When the jurisdiction requests assistance from Walgreens, Walgreens distributes a voucher or authorization form that the person can use to schedule an appointment for a vaccination," a Walgreens spokeswoman said in a statement.
CVS said it would share more information as the next phase of vaccine distribution approaches in the first quarter of 2021.
Kroger said in a statement that customers would need to schedule an appointment online and use a screening tool to manage the verification process.
"In some cases, the state will identify and screen people before they are referred to us for vaccination," a Kroger spokeswoman said.
States have not set out how they will verify workers' identities.
A North Carolina Department of Health spokeswoman said Thursday the state will rely on self-certification and the "hope that people will respect the prioritization."
Companies that are pushing for their workers to be vaccinated are considering several options.
The Consumer Brands Association, which represents food, beverage, personal care and household product companies, and the Food Industry Association, which represents food retailers, said they were developing template letters for employees to review their essential employee status.
"We understand that states may have different labeling standards, but (we) are working to provide a resource for our members to avoid confusion," a Food Industry Association spokeswoman said in a statement.
(Reporting by Tina Bellon and Melissa Fares in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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