Freight transportation groups and airline pilots on Thursday asked the Senate Commerce Committee to use its influence to ensure they receive priority access to new COVID-19 vaccines because of their essential role keeping the economy moving.
Eleven organizations, including the American Trucking Associations, said immunizing truck drivers, longshoremen, engineers and other transportation workers is critical to minimize supply chain disruptions and delays in vaccine distribution.
“Ensuring vaccine availability for freight, rail, port and waterway, and energy workers is a key protective intervention to help keep our critical supply chains operating, reinforce the resilience of our transportation networks, and mitigate the risk of economic downturns and their effects at the local, regional, and national level,” they said in a letter. Other signatories included the National Tank Truck Carriers, the Truckload Carriers Association and the American Association of Port Authorities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month recommended that truck drivers and other transportation workers deemed “essential” by the U.S. government be in the second-highest tier of vaccine recipients, after front-line healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, if supplies are limited.
On Thursday, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel approved a vaccine developed by Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and Germany’s BioNTech. The FDA is expected within days to grant the vaccine an emergency use authorization, but only 3 million doses are in the pipeline to be delivered in the first round. Another 3 million are being held back for second doses required within three weeks. The FDA will review another promising vaccine from Moderna Inc. next week.
The Air Line Pilots Association also called for its members to be put on a preferential schedule for vaccinations, saying the nation depends on them to transport doctors and nurses combating the coronavirus, as well as personal protective equipment and now vaccines being manufactured around the world.
“As pilots continue the vital work of connecting our nation and transporting vital health care workers and products, our all-cargo flight crews, for example, have experienced an alarming increase in COVID-19 exposure and infections. Ensuring this prioritization will allow the logistical component of transporting the vaccine to continue unencumbered,” ALPA separately wrote.
ALPA, which represents pilots at FedEx Express and nearly three dozen other carriers, and the union for UPS pilots have complained about working conditions associated with COVID restrictions and what they claim is inadequate testing as infections sharply rise within their ranks.
“We’re actively testing all of our pilots to make sure we can rotate the pilots efficiently. We have 3,000 pilots in the U.S. and we are testing them all,” said Richard Smith, regional president for the Americas at FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX), during a Commerce subcommittee hearing Thursday about the logistical preparations for the vaccine rollout.
UPS (NYSE: UPS) is also testing pilots for COVID before they fly, although UPS Healthcare President Wes Wheeler acknowledged that testing primarily was for international trips.
ALPA also expressed concern that pilots might jeopardize their medical certification if the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t quickly follow the FDA’s lead and approve the vaccine for pilots.
“Receiving the COVID-19 vaccine before the FAA’s approval could result in suspension of a pilot’s medical certificate, creating potential staffing challenges that would threaten the efficiency of vaccine distribution across the United States,” the union warned.
Historically, the FAA has approved medications or vaccinations after at least a year of post-market experience following FDA approval.
“However, given the nature of the current public health emergency, the FAA will expedite its review of the emergency-use authorizations for the vaccines once they are available,” the agency said in a statement. “The review will determine whether pilots should not fly for a short period of time after receiving the vaccines.”
The FAA requires 24- and 72-hour wait times for tuberculosis and typhoid immunizations, respectively. The tuberculosis immunization is rarely used in the U.S. and the typhoid immunization is rarely given to civilians.