As panicked Americans cleared supermarkets of toilet paper and food last spring, grocery employees gained recognition as among the most indispensable of the pandemic's front-line workers.
A year later, most of those workers are waiting their turn to receive COVID-19 vaccines, with little clarity about when that might happen.
A decentralized vaccine campaign has resulted in a patchwork of policies that differ from state to state, and even county to county in some areas, resulting in an inconsistent rollout to low-paid essential workers who are exposed to hundreds of customers each day.
“Apparently we are not front-line workers when it comes to getting the vaccine. That was kind of a shock,” said Dawn Hand, who works at a Kroger supermarket in Houston, where she said three of her co-workers were out with the virus last week. She watches others getting vaccinated at the in-store pharmacy without knowing when she'll get her turn.
Texas is among several states that have decided to leave grocery and other essential workers out of the second phase of its vaccination effort, instead prioritizing adults over 65 and people with chronic medical conditions.
Focusing on older adults is an approach many epidemiologists support as the most ethical and efficient because it will help reduce deaths and hospitalizations faster. People over 65 account for 80% of deaths in the country, according to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention.
“Our main goals with vaccines should be reducing deaths and hospitalizations,” said William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. “In order to do that, we need to begin vaccinating those at the highest risks.”
But many grocery workers have been surprised and disheartened to find that they've been left out of such policies, in part because a CDC panel had raised their expectations by recommending the second phase of the vaccine rollout — 1B — include grocery and other essential employees.