(AP) — 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.
Even when grocery workers are prioritized, they still face long waits. New York opened up vaccines to grocery workers in early January, along with other essential employees and anyone 65 and over. But limited supply makes booking an appointment difficult, even more so for the workers who don't have large companies or unions to advocate for them.
Edward Lara had to close his small grocery store — known as a bodega — in the Bronx for 40 days when he and his employees contracted the virus last spring. He has tried for weeks to get a vaccine appointment and finally figured out he could register through the website of a network of health care providers, which will notify him when a slot opens.
Lara's father-in-law died of the virus in March. His mother-in-law died in November. Last week, a friend who manages his bodega's insurance policy also died. And a cousin in New Jersey got the virus for a second time, leaving him terrified it could happen to him.
"Nothing to be done. Cross my fingers and hope that God protects me," Lara said after registering for the waitlist.
Only 13 states are currently allowing grocery workers to sign up for vaccines, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million U.S. grocery, meatpacking and other front-line workers.
Some states are still working through an initial phase that prioritizes health workers and nursing home residents. Many states have divided the second phase into tiers that put grocery workers lower than others, including people 65 and over, teachers and first responders. Eleven states have no clear plan for prioritizing grocery workers at all, according to research from United 4 Respect, a labor group that advocates for workers at Walmart, Amazon and other major retailers.