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Should airline workers be near the front of the line for a vaccine?

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The recent news that the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine has received an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) signals the beginning of the end of one of the most tumultuous years in modern American history.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he believed this was the “weapon that will end the war” against the virus as the first shots were administered in New York City, where more than 35,000 people have already succumbed to the disease.

There is little debate over who should be at the front of the line. High risk health care workers and nursing home residents are rightly being prioritized before the vaccine is being made available to the general public, likely in the spring.

But who should go next? Should it be the president and those working at the White House? Should it be state government officials? What about bus drivers and mailmen?

It’s not surprising to hear what Joseph DePete, president of the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) thinks. According to DePete, the best way to guarantee everyone else gets the vaccine is to ensure those that are tasked with its delivery get it first. “This prioritization will allow the logistical component of transporting the vaccine to continue unencumbered”, he says.

And he’s got a point.

Operation Warp Speed, the government program tasked with delivering 300 million vaccine doses around the country, relies on the support of not just UPS and FedEx, but also United and American Airlines.

The very first doses, which were manufactured in Belgium, were brought over to the US by United last month. American said it had flown its first shipment of the vaccine, which has to be stored at -94°F, from Chicago to Florida just this week.

There have already been spikes in infection among some cargo pilots, just as they start preparing for what DePete calls the “mission of the century”. Delta ran into serious problems over the Thanksgiving weekend because so many of their pilots had tested positive for the virus. Any further spike in the number of airline workers contracting the virus could delay the vaccine’s distribution by weeks, weeks that the country does not have.

A resurgence of Covid-19 at the nation’s ports has got longshoremen worried about what could happen if they don’t get bumped up the list. Daniel Maffei, a federal maritime commissioner said that if they have to stay at home because of the coronavirus, “it’s going to be a perfect storm that could jam the entire supply chain”. The same applies to airline workers.

No industry has suffered more this year than the aviation industry. On the same day the first vaccine doses were administered, United slashed its forecast for Q4. The high number of positive cases reported in October hit its bookings hard, and the company now expects revenue to drop 70% year over year this quarter.

Southwest, too, have just announced involuntary furloughs affecting nearly 1,200 of its airline workers in Texas.

By giving airline workers early access to the vaccine, they can, in turn, give the country the chance to get back on its feet. We all need that.

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