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With Limited Vaccines,
The Public Weighs Who's First

By Marc Zwelling
The Vector Poll™

February 10, 2021

Read the related case study by Marc Zwelling of The Vector Poll™:
Public Opinion Polling on the Covid-19 Vaccine: A look at who Canadians believe should be prioritized to receive the Covid-19 vaccine

(January 25, 2021)

So far it has been easy for health officials and politicians to explain how they are doling out the scarce COVID-19 vaccines. By giving vaccines first to health care workers and long-term care residents, health officials have public opinion at their back.

But as vaccine supplies improve, handling the pandemic could get more complicated.

When COVID-19 cases surged this winter, business associations, unions and other groups advocated for pole position in the vaccine rollout for teachers, hotel workers, truck drivers, the homeless, security guards, Uber drivers and Olympic athletes.

The Vector Poll™ asked a demographically representative sample of 1,001 Canadians from January 15 through 21 to consider what priority eight groups should get "now that vaccines to protect people from getting COVID-19 are being approved but are in limited supply."

More than half of Canadians (55%) say health care workers should have the "highest priority."

In addition to that 55% who say "highest priority," another 37% say health workers should have "high priority." In total, 93% agree health workers should get vaccines before others. No other group has as much public support for the privilege of "highest priority."

Far behind health workers are residents in long-term care homes; 18% of Canadians believe they should have the highest priority. Just 9% say people over 65 should get the highest priority. Only 8% say first responders, such as police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, should get highest priority.

Canadians, however, find it hard to decide who should be next in line.

  • 79% say first responders should get "high priority"
  • 73% believe seniors should get "high priority"
  • 65% agree long-term care residents should have "high priority"
  • 61% think teachers should have "high priority"
  • 61% feel service workers such as grocery store employees, bus drivers, restaurant staff and delivery drivers should have "high priority"

Yet millions of Canadians think those groups should wait until vaccines are plentiful. One in three say teachers, grocery employees, bus drivers, restaurant staff and delivery drivers should get only "moderate priority" or "low priority" while vaccines are in short supply.

There is a consensus that two groups should not receive priority while vaccines are in limited supply. Elected officials are tempted to get vaccinated right away — before the TV cameras — to encourage the public to follow their example. But Canadians rank elected officials near the end of the priority list, seventh out of eight.

  • 79% say vaccinating elected officials should be a moderate or low priority

At the bottom are prison inmates.

  • 84% say inmates should receive only moderate or low priority in the vaccine queue (50% say low priority)
  • Fewer than 1% say inmates should get the "highest priority"

Picking those who get priority involves a mixture of science, politics, ethics, and emotion. Arguably inmates should get high priority. The American Medical Association, the physicians' lobby group, says incarcerated people should get vaccines before healthy Americans because inmates have a greater risk of developing COVID-1.

Like residents in long-term care facilities, inmates live in close quarters, eat meals together and are in conditions where it is obviously difficult to social distance. Inmates who catch COVID-19 could infect prison guards, who could carry the virus home, infect their families and spread it through their communities.

As in Canada, in the U.S. nearly everyone agrees with vaccinating health workers first. In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in December, 90% said health workers should be given "high priority" versus 59% for teachers.

Giving priority to people with medical conditions would not necessarily avoid quarrels. Not all medical conditions have the same risk of exposing someone to the virus.

The UK government started vaccinations with frontline health workers, staff and older residents in long-term care facilities, people over 70, and anyone under 70 considered extremely vulnerable to the virus.

But who should be the next highest priority for vaccines? In a poll conducted January 22 through 25, Ipsos MORI asked Britons to choose from a list of 22 groups. Just 1% said prisoners; 46% said teachers. Others at the end of the first-priority list — with 1% each — were professional athletes, bank workers and journalists.

Giving priority to some occupations isn't the only way to share scarce vaccines. Those making a vaccination calendar may want to pencil in neighborhoods and other hot spots where infection rates are highest or prioritize racial and ethnic groups with above-average numbers of COVID-19 cases. Some argue for vaccinating workers in specific industries sooner than others (meat packing and construction, for example).

Until there is a shot for everybody, making a vaccination pecking order involves life-or-death decisions. According to The Guardian, the UK government's advisory committee on vaccine distribution concluded in January that prioritizing teachers and police "over the next few weeks would inevitably lead to more deaths among older people."

The Vector Poll™ results explain why health officials should be thinking now about how to justify their decisions to vaccinate some groups ahead of others when supplies are more ample. If governments want to forestall political discord, the public has to feel the vaccine rollout isn't arbitrary or influenced by lobbyists and special interests.

Is there a way to do that? How about a lottery?


Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies (Wiley, 2012) and Ideas and Innovation For Dummies (Wiley, 2021). This article was first published in Ontario News Watch. Posted date : February 10, 2021

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