Some IT workers may get priority on flu pandemic vaccine

US Feds detail proposed pecking order for vaccinations in bird flu outbreak

If an avian flu pandemic strikes the US, some IT workers in critical industries may get vaccinated before their co-workers or even their family members do, according to a draft version of a government report that attempts set a vaccination pecking order.

A vaccine isn't likely to be available until after a pandemic starts, and even then, there initially would be only limited supplies until production can be increased. To prepare for that possibility, the federal government is broadly ranking people by how critical their jobs or industries as a whole are to the overall well-being of the country.

The draft report, which was written by federal officials from a cross-section of agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, essentially begins with this question: Who should be first in line for a vaccine?

Pregnant women, toddlers, homeland and national security personnel, members of the military and health care workers are at the top of the proposed list. Closely following them are telephony and IT communications workers. A third level includes workers in other industries deemed to be critical to the nation, such as finance, transportation and agriculture. Last in line are healthy adults between the ages of 19 and 64 who aren't included in any of the other categories.

According to the draft report, which was released this week, vaccinations should be "targeted to protect workers with critical skills, experience or licensure status whose absence would create bottlenecks or collapse of critical functions, and to protect workers who are at especially high occupational risk."

"I can't think of a better description of a data center employee," said Scott McPherson, CIO for the Florida House of Representatives and head of that state's IT pandemic planning effort.

But there's a lot of unknowns and gray areas, McPherson said. For instance, even though the draft report broadly characterizes certain industrial sectors as critical, it doesn't stipulate which employees in a company should get first dibs on a vaccine. And everyone in an IT organization may not necessarily need or be eligible for an early vaccination, he said. For instance, data center staffers may have to report to work, but technical support workers may be able to telecommute.

McPherson said companies would have to apply the vaccination tiers set out in the report "to their own core business functions and to the people responsible for them." Businesses also would have to make a case as to the criticality of their services to state health departments to determine "exactly where they fall in the pecking order," he said.

McPherson also cautioned that no one should assume a vaccine will be available in time or be effective. He urged organizations to focus on other measures that can prevent disease from spreading, such as the use of face masks, telecommuting and physically separating workers in offices.

The ethical issues of deciding who would be vaccinated and who wouldn't be were also weighed as part of the draft report, which said that government officials considered it "ethically appropriate" to vaccinate some people earlier than others in order to minimize a pandemic's "health and societal impacts."

People will be able to submit comments on the draft plan for vaccine allocations starting Friday.

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