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U.S. water sector highlights critical role as vaccine rollout planning begins

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Calling the water sector a “lifeline sector” that “underpins all aspects of society,” officials with the U.S.-based Water Sector Coordinating Council (WSCC) say they want to ensure water workers are included early in conversations about community vaccine distribution plans for COVID-19.

Currently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control vaccination protocol places utility workers in the Phase 1-B category with the description of “people who play a key role in keeping essential functions of society running and cannot socially distance in the workplace.”

But state governors will have the final say.

WSCC says that vaccine prioritization discussions are underway and it wants to ensure its workers are highlighted so that federal guidance “translates into local action.” While the federal government has issued recommendations for prioritization, WSCC knows that final decisions related to planning and distribution will occur at state and local levels.

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“Due to the specialized skills and licenses required for utility operations, and the corresponding challenges in finding replacements for staff members who may become ill or exposed, it is essential to mitigate staff members’ COVID-19 risks through all possible means, including vaccinations,” stated an open letter from WSCC, a policy, strategy and coordination mechanism for the U.S. water and wastewater systems sector in interactions with the government.

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Vaccine allocation graphic. Credit: CDC

The WSCC’s open letter was signed by American Water’s Nicholas Santillo, Jr., WSCC Chair.

In August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommended that water and wastewater workers be considered “essential workers” during the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to community planning, the WSCC says that utilities should also begin to develop their own internal priorities for vaccinations, recognizing that utilities may not receive enough doses to vaccinate every staff member.

U.S. citizens in the first vaccine allocation group, such as medical professionals and long-term care facility residents and staff, began receiving doses of the vaccine in early December. The CDC’s advisory committee is meeting in the coming days to discuss and vote on recommendations for Phase 1-B and beyond.

Canada has authorized a two-dose schedule use of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Its prioritization guidelines mirror those in the U.S., and essential Canadian workers, such as those in the water sector, will be vaccinated in Stage 2, according to current recommendations.

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