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We can do it

We Americans fight over everything. Immigration. Climate change. Health care. And, yes, elections. Yet, with the death toll from COVID-19 mounting daily, there is one thing we should not fight over. It is the priority list of who should get vaccinated for the coronavirus.

Within weeks, doses of vaccines will be rushed to the states, including Wisconsin, and officials and health care administrators will need to act quickly to dispense the medications before they expire.

What we don’t need is a prolonged political battle where the vaccine, which must stay refrigerated at super-cold temperatures, may be wasted, needlessly putting real lives in jeopardy.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has attempted to provide leadership on which populations should get the vaccine first. At its Dec. 1 meeting, a CDC panel known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted 13-1 to provide the first doses to health care workers and nursing home patients.

But leadership requires followership and, these days, that’s in short supply. Various states are coming up with their own guidelines. Louisiana, for example, puts prison guards and food processing workers ahead of teachers and grocery store employees. Nevada gives priority to educators and bus drivers over retail clerks and meat packers.

What will the vaccine order be in Wisconsin? Will Gov. Evers merely rubber-stamp ACIP vaccine protocols? And will Republicans in the legislature, who have fought the governor every step in battling COVID-19, not challenge whatever priority list he comes out with?

It is inarguable that health care workers should get the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine. These people are our first line of defense against the disease. Health care workers comprise up to one quarter of all COVID-19 cases.

Things are not so simple after that. A second priority could be nursing home patients, given that half of all coronavirus deaths afflict this population. Others, however, say not so fast. Seventy-eight percent of nursing home residents are the white elderly who matured to their ripe mature years as a result of good health care during their lifetimes. This was health care unavailable to black and brown citizens, whose life expectancy in Wisconsin is seven years shorter than whites and now, as the pandemic rages, are over-represented in jobs most threatened by COVID-19. The death rates among blacks and Hispanics for the coronavirus is three to four times that of white citizens. Should we, then, give vaccine priority to nursing homes over frontline workers? Does this not just continue an existing racial inequity?

There are other snags and snarls. Arguably, K-12 teachers should get vaccines as a priority over other frontline workers. But teachers can perform their jobs online. Should they not take a second priority to a store clerk who must, day after day, confront the general public? And let’s not forget about people in jail. The U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens protection from cruel and unusual punishment, but a quarter million prison inmates nationally and 8,500 in Wisconsin have contracted COVID-19 while behind bars. Should then inmates be given vaccine shots before seniors or factory workers or police officers?

Typically, Americans despise this kind of discussion. They would just as soon let the marketplace sort out who gets what kind of health care. That won’t work here. The federal government has already pre-paid vaccines for all citizens. The nation’s wealthiest billionaire has just as much a right to a COVID-19 shot as the poorest individual.

Our plea is not to adopt our list of vaccine priorities, but to lend support to some sort of workable plan that keeps the most people alive, protects the most vulnerable and provides the shortest path to normalcy. Such a plan, in other words, asks what has been otherwise impossible all year.

Compromise. We can do it. We have to.

Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review