Industry organizations are lobbying to get HVACR technicians, along with those working in other skilled trades, to the top of the list of those receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine is already in initial stages of deployment — Phase 1A — and is going out to healthcare workers, vulnerable seniors, and those in long-term care facilities. Now, states are choosing which essential workers should be included in the next stage of deployment, and which essential workers will need to wait for a subsequent phase.
The HVAC industry is arguing that the importance of technicians makes them excellent candidates to be prioritized in Phase 1B distribution of the vaccine. HVAC technicians have been named as essential critical infrastructure workers by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Vaccine distribution plans will ultimately be up to state and local government officials, but CDC guidance will have a significant impact on decisions made.
In a letter to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), ten skilled trades organizations asked that the committee consider the importance of HVACR technicians to American health when it consults the CDC regarding Phase 1B of vaccine distribution.
“A resurgent virus and second wave of COVID-19 infections come as colder temperatures descend on much of the nation and millions of American families are driven indoors,” the letter stated. “In fact, we believe a record number of Americans may work, study, and celebrate the holidays from home this winter. They continue to rely on local utilities and home heating fuel providers and related service professionals for their continued health, warmth, and safety.”
The ACIP recently recommended that healthcare professionals, long-term care facilities, and vulnerable seniors be prioritized during Phase 1A distribution of the vaccine. The ACIP accepted public comments on the topic of vaccine distribution through Dec. 3, at which time 173 comment letters had already been received.
In the letter to the ACIP, the ten organizations said that skilled trades professionals must frequently enter customers’ homes and businesses to service/repair/replace equipment, and this may require them to interact with their customers, some of whom might be a part of vulnerable populations.
“These workers always wear personal protective equipment and strictly abide by CDC guidelines to protect themselves and their customers,” the letter stated. “Unfortunately, there is always a risk of exposure, especially in smaller residential units. We ask that these factors be considered as you advise the CDC on next steps in the national vaccine plan and, specifically, how access will be prioritized to critical workers in Phase 1B.”
While the deployment of the vaccines does not solely fall onto the federal government or national organizations, the organizations believe that “detailed and consistent guidance at the federal level” will be critical to ensuring that vaccine distribution is handled well at state and local levels.
HVACR technicians, plumbing and utility service professionals, and heating fuel delivery drivers have already been identified as essential by the CISA in its most recent list of critical infrastructure workers.
ACCA was not one of the organizations included in the letter but has been lobbying for technicians’ prioritization in vaccine distribution as well. Chris Czarnecki, ACCA’s government relations representative and coalitions manager, said that HVACR technicians being identified as essential by CISA guidance was of little surprise, since contractors are needed to keep the nation’s critical infrastructure operational — including but not limited to modern medicine, the food supply chain, and data centers. This means that they have the responsibility of going to work each day and risking COVID-19 exposure, which could put both themselves and their loved ones in danger.
Michael Ivanovich, AMCA International, senior director, Global Affairs, explained that vaccinating technicians both protects them from the health threats of working in buildings where COVID patients are being treated and helps prevent technicians from inadvertently spreading COVID as they move and work in numerous buildings.
Ivanovich explained that this is especially relevant as the nation heads into the winter season. Residential heating systems are critical for keeping people safe, as well as allowing people to safely follow stay-at-home or work-from-home mandates.
“HVAC technicians are on the front lines of the COVID pandemic because they are needed to ensure indoor environmental quality for all types of buildings — from hospitals and elder-care facilities to schools and commercial businesses,” he said. “Also, vaccine handling and storage is demonstrating the importance of refrigeration systems, and contractors are needed to ensure they are operating as they should, as well.”
Czarnecki added, “Contractors and technicians who have worked tirelessly through the thick of the pandemic in order to help preserve our modern way of life deserve priority vaccine access because they deserve to go to work every day without fear that they or their families might contract a deadly disease.”
Mark Zarzeczny, ASCS, CVI, NADCA’s president and chairman of the board, said that ACIP made the right decision by recommending that healthcare professionals and vulnerable seniors receive priority in vaccine distribution. But when Phase 1B distribution starts, technicians should be recognized for their importance to keeping Americans safe.
“As the weather turns colder and Americans head indoors, they’ll rely more and more on HVACR technicians to keep their homes and businesses warm,” he said.
Earlier this year, NADCA partnered with the Restoration Industry Association (RIA) and the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) to release a joint statement to federal, state, and local officials requesting they recognize and cite HVAC technicians, air duct cleaning companies, surface cleaning/disaster restoration contractors, and indoor air quality professionals as essential businesses.
NADCA also called on members to donate PPE to the GetUsPPE organization during the shortage of PPE earlier in 2020. NADCA represents more than 1,300 small and large businesses and more than 3,000 certified technicians, with most routinely utilizing PPE. Items requested included gloves, masks, N95 Respirators, face shields, booties, safety goggles, and more. The organization is now working to get technicians access to the vaccine in Phase 1B of distribution.
Czarnecki said that as states begin their vaccination efforts, ACCA will increase its lobbying and advocacy efforts to fight for priority vaccine access for HVACR professionals. This will reflect the effort they put into ensuring that HVACR technicians were deemed essential in March and April of 2020.
“Given that states and localities (as opposed to the federal government) will ultimately have the final say regarding vaccine distribution, we wholly plan to work with and support our members and allies at the state and local levels in a collective industry wide push for vaccine access for HVACR professionals,” said Czarnecki.
On Dec. 14, 2020, ACCA President and CEO Barton James met with former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Mark McClellan to discuss and better understand exactly how different states plan to distribute vaccines. The discussion also included when different populations might be able to reasonably expect vaccine access, and it examined potential challenges and obstacles that might get in the way of a smooth distribution process.
“OESP supports federal recommendations that prioritize healthcare professionals, long-term care facilities, and the most vulnerable seniors for the limited vaccine,” said OESP Executive Director Lisa Strug. “But it is our hope the CDC considers the needs of HVACR technicians, heating fuel delivery drivers and other at-home service professionals. We remain on the front lines, ensuring Americans remain warm this winter. Our members need to be safe.”
“Women in HVACR is dedicated to improving lives,” said Marcia Christiansen, board of directors member for Women in HVACR. “We view distribution of these vaccines to our front-line technicians as a critical support initiative. These technicians install and service equipment vital for heating and cooling environments, including medical facilities and requirements for cold storage needed to support vaccines.”