Saturday heralded another victory in the US’ long war against the coronavirus, as the FDA granted emergency use authorisation to Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, making it the third shot to receive such approval.
The J&J vaccine – which only requires one dose and can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures – is doubtlessly an invaluable weapon in our nation’s arsenal. Already the company have rolled out 3.9 million doses to state and local governments, with plans to produce 100 million doses by the end of June.
However, with the Biden administration targeting 150 million vaccinations by the president’s 100th day in office, the problem with vaccines lies less in supplies and more in the distribution.
Despite an average of 1.82 million doses being administered daily, federal and state authorities are still not prioritising transport workers for vaccination – forcing thousands of workers to risk their lives in frontline jobs with no indication of when they will be protected.
Under guidelines laid out by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), airline staff and other transportation workers are categorised under immunisation phase 1C, alongside housing contractors and members of the media. With most states still working through Phases 1 A and B, most of these frontline workers have still not been offered a vaccine despite the obvious and present dangers of their jobs.
What’s more, several states are deliberately ignoring ACIP guidelines to block transport workers from receiving priority vaccines. Maryland, Montana and New Hampshire have all stated that they will include a “more limited set of essential workers” in Phase 1C, while Tennessee has explicitly said that airport workers will not receive their shots until Phase 2B, due to begin in the third quarter of this year.
This is blatantly unacceptable. By the very nature of their jobs airline staff are required to interact with hundreds of passengers each day and travel frequently, massively increasing their chances of catching the coronavirus and spreading it around the country. Staff are incredibly careful in following proper guidelines, but there is no substitute for a fully armed immune system.
Meanwhile, as states dither and delay over prioritisation, the number of flights to the US continues to increase, with 1 million passengers travelling in a single day on Saturday for the third weekend in a row.
Countries which are more advanced in their immunisation programmes than the US have already recognised the importance of vaccinating airline staff, not only for their own protection but for the benefit of passengers as well. The UAE, which is second in the global vaccine rankings, have been flying fully vaccinated flight crews on Etihad services for weeks now. World-leaders Israel’s have surpassed even this, with El Al managing to vaccinate their entire staff in February, including security workers and ground crew.
Perhaps more pressingly, the US’ failure to prioritise transport workers for vaccines may see our airlines blocked out of the international travel market this summer. Many countries are now considering making vaccination a mandatory requirement for entry in the next couple of months, with the EU announcing its Digital Green Pass vaccine passport programme only this week. Asian countries are likely to soon follow suit, as Air Asia Group’s CEO Tony Fernandes predicts that soon not a single Asian state will allow travelers or pilots in without proof of vaccination.
All this means that even if you find yourself vaccinated and able to travel this summer, your pilot may not be. After such a hellish year for airlines and their staff, it seems frankly irresponsible for the government to undercut their ability to offer international services when the market is finally beginning to open up once more.
The FAA should therefore be demanding vaccines for airline workers as a matter of grave urgency: not only in the interest of public health but also to allow airlines a chance at financial recovery this summer. States should be encouraged to follow federal guidelines on vaccination more closely and transport workers should be recategorized to reflect the genuine risks incurred in their jobs. To do any less would be playing with people’s lives and their livelihoods.