As COVID-19 vaccines move toward the final stages of development and dissemination, federal, state, and local officials are in the process of determining which individuals should receive the vaccine when it first becomes available in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended that the first phase of vaccine rollout be sequenced as follows: Phase 1a includes healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities; phase 1b includes other essential workers (e.g. teachers, firefighters); phase 1c includes adults age 65+ or with high-risk medical conditions.
Governors and state health department officials will likely decide how to implement the CDC recommendations in each state. Some states have concerns that there will not be sufficient vaccine doses to cover all licensed healthcare providers in Phase 1. We expect top priority may be given to healthcare workers who provide direct care for the most vulnerable populations, and those who have a high likelihood of contact with COVID-positive patients.
Psychologists have been recognized by the federal government as essential critical healthcare providers (PDF, 516KB). However, this doesn’t automatically entitle them to immediate access to the vaccine during Phase 1. APA is advocating that psychologists on the front lines and/or providing in-person care with high risk of COVID exposure should remain in the Phase 1 vaccine pool so they can continue providing care to the vulnerable populations they serve.
This issue recently surfaced in Virginia, where officials at the Department of Health Professions asked providers to submit the rationale for why clinicians in outpatient settings warrant priority. APA and Virginia Academy of Clinical Psychologists submitted an advocacy letter to the Board of Psychology to demonstrate the need for psychologists who offer services in outpatient settings to receive the vaccine.
As the need for psychological services grows, psychologists will need access to the COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves and the patients they serve. A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found, “Nearly half (45%) of adults across the country say that worry and stress related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are hurting their mental health, an early sign that the health and economic crises is likely to increase mental health problems and further stretch the system’s capacity.” Similarly, APA’s 2020 Stress in America survey found a marked increase in Americans’ stress levels due to COVID-19.
The delivery of services via telehealth is an appropriate and effective means of serving patients, and APA encourages the use of telehealth to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Telehealth, however, is not always possible for all psychologists or patients for several reasons. For example, many psychologists work in hospital or residential settings where in-person care is necessary. Technology may not be easily available; payers may stop or reduce coverage for telehealth, or patient/family needs may suggest that in-person care is the right approach.
If psychological services are delivered in person, they are generally provided in closed settings where physical distancing and ventilation may be challenging. Access to the vaccine will be crucial to sustain the health and safety of practitioners, their patients, and their families.