Public power officials detail plans for COVID-19 vaccine distribution

December 16, 2020

by Paul Ciampoli
APPA News Director
December 16, 2020

Public power officials in a Dec. 3 webinar hosted by the American Public Power Association discussed how the public power community is preparing for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Webinar participants were Matthew Sinn, Manager of Emergency Management at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Barry Moline, Executive Director at the California Municipal Utilities Association (CMUA), and Thomas Pierpoint, Austin Energy’s Vice President of Engineering.

At the start of the webinar, Sam Rozenberg, Director of Security and Resilience at APPA, noted that APPA, working with CMUA, has developed a template letter that utility organizations can send to their local and state government leaders requesting vaccine prioritization.

“APPA acknowledges that vaccine prioritization for the electric utility workforce should be after that of health care workers and obviously the most vulnerable of our population,” Rozenberg said.

TVA’s Sinn said that states are likely to use multiple methods to get vaccines to people including delivery by public health strike forces or through partnerships with major pharmacies.

With respect to the question of how the utility sector will receive vaccines, Sinn said that “in TVA’s case, none of our seven states have finalized selection of critical populations for each phase and we know that each of the seven states has their own perspective on whether energy sector workers should be eligible and are eligible.” He said it’s unclear to TVA “whether states will actually require providers to screen for residency.”

TVA’s power service territory covers 80,000 square miles, including most of Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia.

Sinn said that “there’s a lot that’s unclear.” For example, he said that it remains unclear “how our states will prioritize electric sector workers and other utility workers.”

He said that TVA’s emergency management group has acquired and is reviewing state plans. “We maintain open weekly communication with our state departments of public health and the associated emergency management agencies for each state,” Sinn noted.

“We have sought guidance from them on what we can do to best prepare and that seems to be to segment our workforce. We are looking at segmenting our workforce around our business continuity plan. We’re looking at methodologies to do this right now.”

Sinn also noted that “our own medical team is keeping an eye out with local medical service providers to understand what they know about how the vaccine will be distributed.”

CMUA, other organizations send letter related to vaccine prioritization

CMUA was a signatory to a Dec. 4 letter related to vaccine prioritization that was sent to officials with the California Department of Public Health.

“The undersigned organizations, representing the electric, natural gas, and water sector, respectfully urge you to ensure that California’s energy and water Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers – as identified by the State Public Health Officer – are part of the Phase 1-B vaccine distribution of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan,” the letter said.

The essential critical infrastructure workers “critical to keeping the water and power flowing have remained on the job since Day 1 of the COVID-19 crisis to keep the lights on and water flowing across California,” CMUA and the other organizations said in the letter. “For the greater good, these essential critical infrastructure workers have been putting their personal health at risk every day. Providing them reasonable priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine will help ensure that they can remain on the job to perform their critical functions while protecting the health and safety of themselves and those around them,” the letter said.

The groups said they recognize the seriousness of the decisions that must be made when it comes to prioritizing what appears to be a safe and efficacious vaccination for COVID-19. “We understand that there are myriad priorities and metrics to consider, including complex coordination with federal and local government partners. We also recognize the importance of ensuring California’s healthcare workforce is prioritized in receiving the vaccine.”

The Interim draft of the California Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, dated Oct. 16, 2020, provides that people at increased risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19 and other essential workers, may receive the vaccine in Phase 1-B of the three-phase approach to vaccine allocation.

The interim draft does not define what are considered “other essential workers,” but does recognize that the state is currently identifying and estimating the critical populations for Phase 1, the letter noted.

California’s state public health officer has designated certain utility employees as essential critical infrastructure workers. “These essential critical infrastructure workers perform work at critical infrastructure locations (such as water treatment plants and power plants) to keep electric and water infrastructure operating in neighborhoods, making necessary repairs to utility lines, and in the field carrying out wildfire prevention activities such as vegetation management and inspections for safe operations,” the letter said.

“To reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, our organizations, member organizations, and essential critical infrastructure workers, have changed the way they work,” the groups noted.

For example, utilities are using staggered shifts or smaller teams of essential critical infrastructure workers.

“However, due to the nature of the work, there are times when these employees need to be in close proximity to each other, making vaccination – and PPE – highly important to the job,” the letter noted. “For example, essential critical infrastructure workers in grid control rooms often work in open floor plan environments with no walls or separation between desks, and the work requires frequent consultation between employees. Some work activities also require essential critical infrastructure workers to be in the community conducting field work, often in teams, which increases their potential exposure to the virus.”

 

During the webinar, Moline said that “we are surveying our members to quantify the essential workers. We actually don’t know the number right now, but we need to know that number so that we can pinpoint it and let them know how many vaccines we think we need.”

Moline said that “if you have not yet communicated with your state department of health,” that should be done immediately.

“These are people that don’t know us. These are medical people and we don’t necessarily interact frequently with the department of health,” he said. “We’ve found they’ve been really open to learning about our essential workers and the valuable service they provide our community.”

Scenarios for vaccine distribution

In his presentation, Austin Energy’s Pierpoint included a list of scenarios tied to the distribution of vaccines. “These scenarios might change over time. We’ll probably have new scenarios emerge and as this whole vaccination process works its course, we may have multiple scenarios in place simultaneously,” he said.

“I think each utility and maybe us as an industry group should identify the scenarios and manage outcomes that can best protect our workforces,” said Pierpoint.

Scenarios listed by the Austin Energy official in his presentation include broad government-facilitated distribution, federally facilitated distribution specifically geared for critical infrastructure workers, vaccines available for workers via their traditional healthcare channels, utilities working with their key health care providers to streamline worker vaccinations and utilities directly obtaining and administering vaccines.

Pierpoint also outlined guidelines for utilities to consider in helping their workforce navigate through the vaccine rollout process.

Included in those guidelines, he said, is that it is going to be a lengthy effort.

In addition, he said that utilities will probably not be able to require that personnel get vaccines. But utilities may have the ability to require that returning personnel provide evidence of a vaccination or positive anti-bodies. “Having said that, there’s a lot of aspects of this that need to be explored in advance.”

 FDA recently authorized emergency use of vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this month authorized emergency use of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for emergency use and the vaccine is now being distributed and administered in the U.S.

And the coronavirus vaccine made by Moderna “is highly protective, according to new data released on Tuesday, setting the stage for its emergency authorization this week by federal regulators and the start of its distribution across the country,” the New York Times reported on Dec. 15.

APPA supports prioritization of COVID-19 vaccine for mission essential workers

Organizations representing state and local governments should ask their members to designate energy industry mission-essential workers as high priority for voluntary access to initial inoculation against COVID-19, a group of energy industry trade associations including APPA and unions said in a Dec. 3 letter.

The letter was sent to the Council of State Governments, International City/Council Management Association, National Association of Counties, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), National Council of State Legislatures, National Governors Association, National League of Cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

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