‘A very difficult set of decisions’

Figuring out who to prioritize for COVID-19 vaccination is an incredibly difficult task, given the vulnerability of a variety of groups, including elderly people, residents of nursing homes and other congregate settings, frontline workers, people with comorbidities, and hard-hit communities of color, according to immunologist Barry Bloom.

In a January 11, 2021, Q&A in the New Yorker, Bloom, the Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Research Professor of Public Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, discussed the nuances involved in deciding who should get vaccinated first.

He noted that prioritizing older people for COVID-19 vaccination is crucial, because they account for most deaths from the disease. Frontline workers should also receive early vaccines because they’re exposed to disease every day, and they’re needed to keep hospitals functioning, he said.

But other factors complicate matters, said Bloom, who serves on Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group. For instance, in vaccinating older individuals, should people only over age 75 be prioritized? Over age 65? Given that the risks are roughly the same for both groups, many lives would be saved by extending priority to everyone over age 65, Bloom said.

Experts have also struggled with other decisions, such as who should be considered an “essential worker” and whether to prioritize essential workers or people with underlying health conditions; and how to ensure equitable treatment for African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. “I think that every state is having to wrestle with how to evaluate those things,” he said.

Read the New Yorker Q&A: Deciding Who Should Be Vaccinated First