Minnesota first responders say they should be among first to be vaccinated

Two firefighter groups asked Gov. Tim Walz to overrule the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and include first responders in the first wave of Minnesotans who get coronavirus vaccines.

This week, the CDC put health care workers and long-term care residents in the highest-priority group. First responders and a large class of other essential workers fall into the second-priority group.

"It might seem a subtle difference, but we could talk about weeks and possibly months of delays depending on that different classification of frontline first responders," said Brooklyn Park Fire Chief John Cunningham, president of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association. Cunningham's organization and the Minnesota Fire Department Association wrote a letter to Walz asking him to step in.

At a news conference after the firefighters made their request public, Walz's health commissioner, Jan Malcolm, said Minnesota is required to follow the CDC's framework that puts firefighters and police officers in the second-priority category.

How will Minnesota prioritize health care workers?

States will only have authority to prioritize certain workers within the CDC's "1A" and "1B" groups, not to move people from one group to another, she said.

Within the highest-priority group of health care workers, Minnesota will put workers who directly treat coronavirus patients at the front of the line, Walz said. Hospital administrators and even some care providers, such as dermatologists, would have to wait a bit longer, he said.

"These are decisions that need to be based on science, they need to be based on the best practices, these need to be based on the ethics," Walz said.

Minnesota health officials don't know how many initial doses they'll receive from the federal government. The state has "many more times" the number of health care workers as doses that will be available at first, said Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health.

What is the timeline?

Minnesota officials expect the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve Pfizer's emergency use authorization on Dec. 11. The CDC would then need to put out final guidelines, allowing Minnesota to train staff on vaccine distribution. Meanwhile, hospitals and pharmacies that will administer many of the shots would need to get up to speed on regulatory requirements.

The first shots will go in Minnesotans' arms likely sometime just before Christmas, Walz and Malcolm said Wednesday.

Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna -- which is second in the pipeline -- both require people to get two shots a few weeks apart.

Outbreaks among first responders

Eagan Police Chief Roger New said 20 percent of his staff was off the job in November because of exposure. One department member was hospitalized and required two months to recover, he said.

At least 99 of Minnesota's 408 fire departments, or 25 percent, have had outbreaks this year, statewide fire officials said.

The small fire department in Plato, southwest of the Twin Cities, stopped taking calls in November because three-fourths of the 20-member volunteer force had tested positive or had been exposed. Plato firefighter Jay Wood, who spoke at Walz's news conference Wednesday afternoon, said his department followed COVID guidelines but "one little spark can start a fire." Everyone in the agency has recovered, he said.

In all cases statewide, mutual aid agreements prevented service disruptions, officials said. But the situation shows the importance of vaccinating first responders, said Cunningham, the fire chief in Brooklyn Park.

"We don’t have a huge bench when it comes to our frontline first response, so anything we can do to protect our frontline workers (helps)," he said.