Tagged Global Health Watch

Health Workers Unions See Surge in Interest Amid Covid

The nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, declared on March 6 — by filing the official paperwork — that they were ready to vote on the prospect of joining a national union. At the time, they were motivated by the desire for more nurses and support staff, and to have a voice in hospital decisions.

A week later, as the covid-19 pandemic bore down on the state, the effort was put on hold, and everyone scrambled to respond to the coronavirus. But the nurses’ long-standing concerns only became heightened during the crisis, and new issues they’d never considered suddenly became urgent problems.

Staffers struggled to find masks and other protective equipment, said nurses interviewed for this story. The hospital discouraged them from wearing masks one day and required masks 10 days later. The staff wasn’t consistently tested for covid and often not even notified when exposed to covid-positive patients. According to the nurses and a review of safety complaints made to federal regulators, the concerns persisted for months. And some nurses said the situation fueled doubts about whether hospital executives were prioritizing staff and patients, or the bottom line.

By the time the nurses held their election in September — six months after they had filed paperwork to do so — 70% voted to unionize. In a historically anti-union state with right-to-work laws and the second-least unionized workforce in the country, that margin of victory is a significant feat, said academic experts who study labor movements.

That it occurred during the pandemic is no coincidence.

For months now, front-line health workers across the country have faced a perpetual lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and inconsistent safety measures. Studies show they’re more likely to be infected by the coronavirus than the general population, and hundreds have died, according to reporting by KHN and The Guardian.

Many workers say employers and government systems that are meant to protect them have failed.

Research shows that health facilities with unions have better patient outcomes and are more likely to have inspections that can find and correct workplace hazards. One study found New York nursing homes with unionized workers had lower covid mortality rates, as well as better access to PPE and stronger infection control measures, than nonunion facilities.

Recognizing that, some workers — like the nurses at Mission Hospital — are forming new unions or thinking about organizing for the first time. Others, who already belong to a union, are taking more active leadership roles, voting to strike, launching public information campaigns and filing lawsuits against employers.

“The urgency and desperation we’ve heard from workers is at a pitch I haven’t experienced before in 20 years of this work,” said Cass Gualvez, organizing director for Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West in California. “We’ve talked to workers who said, ‘I was dead set against a union five years ago, but covid has changed that.’”

In response to union actions, many hospitals across the country have said worker safety is already their top priority, and unions are taking advantage of a difficult situation to divide staff and management, rather than working together.

Labor experts say it’s too soon to know if the outrage over working conditions will translate into an increase in union membership, but early indications suggest a small uptick. Of the approximately 1,500 petitions for union representation posted on the National Labor Relations Board website in 2020, 16% appear related to the health care field, up from 14% the previous year.

In Colorado, SEIU Local 105 health care organizing director Stephanie Felix-Sowy said her team is fielding dozens of calls a month from nonunion workers interested in joining. Not only are nurses and respiratory therapists reaching out, but dietary workers and cleaning staff are as well, including several from rural parts of the state where union representation has traditionally been low.

“The pandemic didn’t create most of the root problems they’re concerned about,” she said. “But it amplified them and the need to address them.”

A nurse for 30 years, Amy Waters had always been aware of a mostly unspoken but widespread sentiment that talking about unions could endanger her job. But after HCA Healthcare took over Mission Health in 2019, she saw nurses and support staff members being cut and she worried about the effect on patient care. Joining National Nurses United could help, she thought. During the pandemic, her fears only worsened. At times, nurses cared for seven patients at once, despite research indicating four is a reasonable number.

Members of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists went on a two-day strike in November asking for more N95 masks. MultiCare found another vendor for N95s and said it would provide them by mid-December. (Marisa Powell)

In a statement, Mission Health said it has adequate staffing and is aggressively recruiting nurses. “We have the beds, staffing, PPE supplies and equipment we need at this time and we are well-equipped to handle any potential surge,” spokesperson Nancy Lindell wrote. The hospital has required universal masking since March and requires staff members who test positive to stay home, she added.

Although the nurses didn’t vote to unionize until September, Waters said, they began acting collectively from the early days of the pandemic. They drafted a petition and sent a letter to administrators together. When the hospital agreed to provide advanced training on how to use PPE to protect against covid transmission, it was a small but significant victory, Waters said.

“Seeing that change brought a fair number of nurses who had still been undecided about the union to feel like, ‘Yeah, if we work together, we can make change,’” she said.

Old Concerns Heightened, New Issues Arise

Even as union membership in most industries has declined in recent years, health workers unions have remained relatively stable. Experts say it’s partly because of the focus on patient care issues, like safe staffing ratios, which resonate widely and have only grown during the pandemic.

At St. Mary Medical Center outside Philadelphia, short staffing led nurses to strike in November. Donna Halpern, a nurse on the cardiovascular and critical care unit, said staffing had been a point of negotiation with the hospital since the nurses joined the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals in 2019. But with another surge of covid cases approaching, the nurses decided not to wait any longer to take action, she said.

A month later, officials with Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, which owns the hospital, announced a tentative labor agreement with the union. The contract “gives nurses a voice in discussions on staffing while preserving the hospital’s right and authority to make all staffing decisions,” the hospital said in a statement.

In Colorado, where state inspection reports show understaffing led to a patient death at a suburban Denver hospital, SEIU Local 105 has launched a media campaign about unsafe practices by the hospital’s parent company, HealthOne. The union doesn’t represent HealthOne employees, but union leaders said they felt compelled to act after repeatedly hearing concerns.

In a statement, HealthOne said staffing levels are appropriate across its hospitals and it is continuing to recruit and hire staff members.

Covid is also raising entirely new issues for workers to organize around. At the forefront is the lack of PPE, which was noted in one-third of the health worker deaths catalogued by KHN and The Guardian.

Nurses at Albany Medical Center in New York picketed on Dec. 1 with signs demanding PPE and spoke about having to reuse N95 masks up to 20 times.

The hospital told KHN it follows federal guidelines for reprocessing masks, but intensive care nurse Jennifer Bejo said it feels unsafe.

At MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care clinics in Washington state, staff members were provided only surgical masks and face shields for months, even when performing covid tests and seeing covid patients, said Dr. Brian Fox, who works at the clinics and is a member of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. The company agreed to provide N95 masks after staffers went on a two-day strike in November.

MultiCare said it found another vendor for N95s in early December and is in the process of distributing them.

PPE has also become a rallying point for nonunion workers. At a November event handing out PPE in El Paso, Texas, more than 60 workers showed up in the first hour, said SEIU Texas President Elsa Caballero. Many were not union members, she said, but by the end of the day, dozens had signed membership cards to join.

Nurses at Albany Medical Center picketed on Dec.1, asking for more personal protective equipment. They say they’re having to reuse N95 masks up to 20 times. (Hans Pennink)
Members of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists went on a two-day strike in November asking for more N95 masks. MultiCare found another vendor for N95s and said it would provide them by mid-December. (Marisa Powell)

Small Successes, Gradual Movement

Organized labor is not a panacea, union officials admit. Their members have faced PPE shortages and high infection rates throughout the pandemic, too. But collective action can help workers push for and achieve change, they said.

National Nurses United and the National Union of Healthcare Workers said they’ve each seen an influx in calls from nonmembers, but whether that results in more union elections is yet to be seen.

David Zonderman, an expert in labor history at North Carolina State University, said safety concerns like factory fires and mine collapses have often galvanized collective action in the past, as workers felt their lives were endangered. But labor laws can make it difficult to organize, he said, and many efforts to unionize are unsuccessful.

Health care employers, in particular, are known to launch aggressive and well-funded anti-union campaigns, said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies expert at Rutgers university. Still, workers might be more motivated by what they witnessed during the pandemic, she said.

“An experience like treating patients in this pandemic will change a health care worker forever,” Givan said, “and will have an impact on their willingness to speak out, to go on strike and to unionize if needed.”

Illinois, primer estado en ofrecer cobertura médica a adultos mayores indocumentados

Como jefa de enfermería en uno de los hospitales más concurridos de la red de seguridad de atención médica de Chicago, Raquel Prendkowski ha sido testigo del devastador número de víctimas que COVID-19 ha causado entre los residentes más vulnerables de la ciudad, incluyendo a personas que no tienen seguro médico por su estatus migratorio.

Algunos llegan tan enfermos que van directo a cuidados intensivos. Muchos no sobreviven.

“Vivimos una pesadilla constante”, dijo Prendkowski mientras trataba a pacientes con coronavirus en el Hospital Mount Sinai, fundado a principios del siglo XX para atender a los inmigrantes más pobres. “Ojalá salgamos pronto de esto”.

La enfermera cree que algunas muertes, y mucho sufrimiento, podrían haberse evitado si estas personas hubieran tenido un tratamiento regular para todo tipo de condiciones crónicas —asma, diabetes, enfermedades del corazón— que pueden empeorar COVID-19.

Y ahora se siente esperanzada.

En medio del brote del mortal virus que ha afectado de manera desproporcionada a las comunidades hispanas, Illinois se convirtió recientemente en el primer estado de la nación en extender el seguro médico público a todos los adultos mayores no ciudadanos de bajos ingresos, incluso si son indocumentados.

Defensores de los inmigrantes esperan que inspire a otros estados a hacer lo mismo. De hecho, legisladores demócratas de California están presionando para expandir su Medicaid a todos los inmigrantes indocumentados del estado.

“Hacer esto durante la pandemia muestra nuestro compromiso con la expansión y ampliación del acceso a la atención de salud. Es un gran primer paso”, señaló Graciela Guzmán, directora de campaña de Healthy Illinois, que promueve la cobertura universal en el estado.

Muchos inmigrantes indocumentados sin cobertura de salud no van al médico. Ese fue el caso de Victoria Hernández, una limpiadora de casas de 68 años que vive en West Chicago, Illinois. La mujer, nativa de la Ciudad de México dijo que, cuando no tenía seguro, simplemente no iba al médico.

Soportaba cualquier dolencia hasta que encontró un programa de caridad que la ayudó a  tratar su prediabetes. Dijo que tiene la intención de inscribirse en el nuevo plan estatal una vez que tenga más información.

“Estoy muy agradecida por el nuevo programa”, explicó a través de un traductor que trabaja para DuPage Health Coalition, una organización sin fines de lucro que coordina la atención de caridad para personas sin seguro médico como Hernández en el condado de DuPage, el segundo más poblado del estado. “Sé que ayudará a mucha gente como yo. Sé que tendrá buenos resultados, muy, muy buenos resultados”.

Primero, Healthy Illinois intentó ampliar los beneficios de Medicaid a todos los inmigrantes de bajos ingresos, pero los legisladores decidieron empezar con un programa más pequeño, que cubre a adultos mayores de 65 años o más que son indocumentados, o que han sido residentes permanentes, tienen tarjeta verde, por menos de cinco años (este grupo no califica para seguro de salud auspiciado por el gobierno).

Los participantes deben tener ingresos que estén en o por debajo del nivel de pobreza federal, que es de $12,670 para un individuo o $17,240 para una pareja. Cubre servicios como visitas al hospital y al médico, medicamentos recetados, y atención dental y oftalmológica (aunque no estancias en centros de enfermería), sin costo para el paciente.

La nueva norma continúa la tendencia de expandir la cobertura de salud del gobierno a los inmigrantes sin papeles.

Illinois fue el primer estado que cubrió la salud de niños indocumentados y también los transplantes de órganos. Otros estados y el Distrito de Columbia lo hicieron después.

El año pasado, California fue el primero en ofrecer cobertura pública a los adultos indocumentados, cuando amplió la elegibilidad para su programa Medi-Cal a todos los residentes de bajos ingresos menores de 26 años.

Según la ley federal, las personas indocumentadas generalmente no son elegibles para Medicare, Medicaid que no es de emergencia y el mercado de seguros de salud de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio (ACA). Los estados que ofrecen cobertura a esta población lo hacen usando sólo fondos estatales.

Se estima que en Illinois viven 3,986 adultos mayores indocumentados, según un estudio del Centro Médico de la Universidad de Rush y el grupo de demógrafos de Chicago Rob Paral & Associates; y se espera que el número aumente a 55,144 para 2030. El informe también encontró que el 16% de los inmigrantes de Illinois de 55 años o más viven en la situación de pobreza, en comparación con el 11% de la población nacida en el país.

Dado que la administración saliente de Trump ha promovido duras medidas migratorias, sectores del activismo pro inmigrante temen que haya miedo a inscribirse en el nuevo programa porque podría afectar la capacidad de obtener la residencia o la ciudadanía en el fututo, y trabajan para asegurarles que no lo hará.

Jeffrey McInnes supervisa el acceso de los pacientes en Esperanza Health Centers, uno de los proveedores de atención médica para inmigrantes más grandes de Chicago. McInness dice que el 31% de sus pacientes de 65 años o más no tienen cobertura de salud.(Jeffrey McInnes)

“Illinois cuenta con un legado de ser un estado que acepta al recién llegado y de proteger la privacidad de los inmigrantes”, señaló Andrea Kovach, abogada que trabaja en equidad en la salud en el Shriver Center for Poverty Law en Chicago.

Se espera que la normativa cubra inicialmente de 4,200 a 4,600 inmigrantes mayores, a un costo aproximado de entre $46 millones a $50 millones al año, según John Hoffman, vocero del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Familiares de Illinois.

Algunos representantes estatales republicanos criticaron la expansión de la cobertura, diciendo que era imprudente hacerlo en un momento en que las finanzas de Illinois sufren por la pandemia. En una declaración condenando el presupuesto estatal de este año, el Partido Republicano de Illinois lo denominó “atención de la salud gratuito para los inmigrantes ilegales”.

Pero los defensores de la nueva política sostienen que muchos inmigrantes sin papeles pagan impuestos sin ser elegibles para programas como Medicare y Medicaid, y que gastar por adelantado en cuidados preventivos ahorra dinero, a largo plazo, al reducir el número de personas que esperan para buscar tratamiento hasta que es una emergencia.

Algunos inmigrantes indocumentados temen que inscribirse para tener seguro de salud ponga en peligro su capacidad para obtener la residencia o la ciudadanía. Andrea Kovach, abogada senior de equidad en atención de salud en el Shriver Center on Poverty Law en Chicago, dice que no deben preocuparse. “Illinois tiene el legado de ser un estado que acoge a inmigrantes y protege su privacidad”, dijo.(Andrea Kovach)

Para Delia Ramírez, representante estatal de Illinois, ampliar la cobertura de salud a todos los adultos mayores de bajos ingresos es personal. A la demócrata de Chicago la inspira su tío, un inmigrante de 64 años que no tiene seguro.

Dijo que intentó que la legislación cubriera a las personas de 55 años o más, ya que la gran mayoría de los indocumentados no son personas mayores (señaló que muchos de los inmigrantes mayores —2,7 millones, según estimaciones del gobierno— obtuvieron el estatus legal con la ley de amnistía federal de 1986).

Un mayor número de inmigrantes más jóvenes también pueden estar sin seguro. En los Centros de Salud Esperanza, uno de los mayores proveedores de atención médica para inmigrantes de Chicago, el 31% de los pacientes de 65 años o más carece de cobertura, en comparación con el 47% de los de 60 a 64 años, según Jeffey McInnes, que supervisa el acceso de los pacientes a las clínicas.

Ramírez dijo que su tío la llamó después de ver las noticias sobre la nueva legislación en la televisión en español. Contó que su tío ha vivido en el país por cuatro décadas y ha trabajado para que sus cuatro hijos fueran a la universidad. También padece asma, diabetes e hipertensión, lo que lo hace de alto riesgo para COVID-19.

“Yo le dije: ‘Tío, todavía no. Pero cuando cumplas 65 años, finalmente tendrás atención médica, si es que aún no hemos conseguido legalizarte”, recordó Ramírez, emocionada, durante una reciente entrevista telefónica.

“Así que es un recordatorio para mí de que, en primer lugar, fue una gran victoria para nosotros y ha significado la vida o una segunda oportunidad de vida para muchas personas”, dijo. “Pero también significa que todavía tenemos un largo camino por recorrer para hacer de la atención de salud un verdadero derecho humano en el estado, y en la nación”.

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Illinois Is First in the Nation to Extend Health Coverage to Undocumented Seniors

As a nurse manager for one of Chicago’s busiest safety-net hospitals, Raquel Prendkowski has witnessed covid-19’s devastating toll on many of the city’s most vulnerable residents — including people who lack health insurance because of their immigration status. Some come in so sick they go right to intensive care. Some don’t survive.

“We’re in a bad dream all the time,” she said during a recent day treating coronavirus patients at Mount Sinai Hospital, which was founded in the early 20th century to care for the city’s poorest immigrants. “I can’t wait to wake up from this.”

Prendkowski believes some of the death and suffering could have been avoided if more of these people had regular treatment for the types of chronic conditions — asthma, diabetes, heart disease — that can worsen covid. She now sees a new reason for hope.

Amid a deadly virus outbreak that has disproportionately stricken Latino communities, Illinois recently became the first state to provide public health insurance to all low-income noncitizen seniors, even if they’re in the country illegally. Advocates for immigrants expect it will inspire other states to do the same, building on efforts to cover undocumented children and young adults. Currently, Democratic legislators in California are pushing to expand coverage to all low-income undocumented immigrants there.

“The fact that we’re going to do this during the pandemic really shows our commitment to expansion and broadening health care access. It’s an amazing first step in the door,” said Graciela Guzmán, campaign director for Healthy Illinois, a group that advocates for universal coverage.

Undocumented immigrants without health insurance often skip care. That was the case for Victoria Hernandez, 68, a house cleaner who lives in West Chicago, a suburb. The Mexico City native said she had avoided going to the doctor because she didn’t have coverage. Eventually, she found a charity program to help her get treatment, including for her prediabetes. She said she intends to enroll in the new state plan.

“I’m very thankful for the new program,” she said through a translator who works for the DuPage Health Coalition, a nonprofit that coordinates charity care for the uninsured in DuPage County, the state’s second-most populous. “I know it will help a lot of people like me.”

Healthy Illinois pushed state lawmakers to offer health benefits to all low-income immigrants. But the legislature opted instead for a smaller program that covers people 65 and older who are undocumented or have been legal permanent residents, also known as green card holders, for less than five years. (These groups don’t typically qualify for government health insurance.) Participants must have an income at or below the federal poverty level, which is $12,670 for an individual or $17,240 for a couple. It covers services like hospital and doctor visits, prescription drugs, and dental and vision care (though not stays in nursing facilities), at no cost to the patient.

Some undocumented immigrants fear that enrolling in an insurance plan would jeopardize their ability to obtain residency or citizenship. Andrea Kovach, senior attorney for health care justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago, says they needn’t worry. “Illinois has a legacy of being a very welcoming state and protecting immigrants’ privacy,” Kovach says. (Andrea Kovach)
Raquel Prendkowski, nurse manager at Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital, believes that some of the death and suffering from covid could have been avoided if more seniors had regular treatment for chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. (Raquel Prendkowski)

The new policy continues a trend of expanding government health coverage to undocumented immigrants.

Illinois was the first state to cover children’s care — a handful of states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit — and organ transplants for unauthorized immigrants. In 2019, California became the first to offer public coverage to adults in the country illegally when it opened eligibility for its Medi-Cal program to all low-income residents under age 26.

Under federal law, undocumented people are generally not eligible for Medicare, nonemergency Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplace. The states that do cover this population get around that by using only state funds.

An estimated 3,986 undocumented seniors live in Illinois, according to a study by Rush University Medical Center and the Chicago demographer group Rob Paral & Associates — but that number is expected to grow to 55,144 by 2030. The report also found that 16% of Illinois immigrants 55 or older live in poverty, compared with 11% of the native-born population.

Jeffrey McInnes oversees patient access at Esperanza Health Centers ― one of Chicago’s largest providers of health care to immigrants. McInness says that 31% of his patients 65 and older lack coverage. (Jeffrey McInnes)

Given the outgoing Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration, some advocates worry that people will be afraid to enroll in the insurance because it could affect their ability to obtain residency or citizenship. Andrea Kovach, senior attorney for health care justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago, said she and others are working to assure immigrants they don’t need to worry. Because the new program is state-funded, federal guidance suggests it is not subject to the “public charge” rule designed to keep out immigrants who might end up on public assistance.

“Illinois has a legacy of being a very welcoming state and protecting immigrants’ privacy,” Kovach said.

The Illinois policy is initially expected to cover 4,200 to 4,600 immigrant seniors, at an approximate cost of $46 million to $50 million a year, according to John Hoffman, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Most of them would likely be undocumented.

Some Republicans criticized the coverage expansion, saying it was reckless at a time when Illinois’ finances are being shredded by the pandemic. The Illinois Republican Party deemed it “free healthcare for illegal immigrants.”

But proponents contend that many unauthorized immigrants pay taxes without being eligible for programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and that spending on preventive care saves money in the long run by cutting down on more expensive treatment for emergencies.

Some undocumented immigrants fear that enrolling in an insurance plan would jeopardize their ability to obtain residency or citizenship. Andrea Kovach, senior attorney for health care justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago, says they needn’t worry. “Illinois has a legacy of being a very welcoming state and protecting immigrants’ privacy,” Kovach says. (Andrea Kovach)

State Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Chicago Democrat who helped shepherd the legislation, advocated for a more expansive plan. She was inspired by her uncle, a 64-year-old immigrant who has asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure but no insurance. He has been working in the country for four decades.

She wanted the policy to apply to people 55 and older, since the vast majority of those who are undocumented are not seniors (she noted that a lot of older immigrants — 2.7 million, according to government estimates — obtained legal status under the 1986 federal amnesty law).

The real impact of this plan will likely be felt in years to come. At Esperanza Health Centers, one of Chicago’s largest providers of health care to immigrants, 31% of patients 65 and older lack coverage, compared with 47% of those 60 to 64, according to Jeffrey McInnes, who oversees patient access there.

Ramirez said her uncle called her after seeing news of the legislation on Spanish-language TV.

“And I said to him, ‘Tío, not yet. But when you turn 65, you’ll finally have health care, if we still can’t help you legalize,’” Ramirez recalled, choking up during a recent phone interview.

“So it is a reminder to me that, one, it was a major victory for us and it has meant life or a second chance at life for many people,” she said. “But it is also a reminder to me that we still have a long way to go in making health care truly a human right in the state and, furthermore, the nation.”

Eureka! Two Vaccines Work — But What About the Also-Rans in the Pharma Arms Race?

As I prepared to get my shot in mid-December as part of a covid vaccine trial run by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, I considered the escape routes. Bailing out of the trial was a very real consideration since two other vaccines, made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, had been deemed safe and effective for emergency approval.

Leaving the trial would be a perfectly sane decision for me or anyone who had volunteered for an ongoing covid experiment. Why risk getting covid-19 if I was given a placebo, a shot with no vaccine in it? The way tests are designed, I might not be told whether I received the vaccine until the clinical trial is over, months from now.

Dropping the placebo arm could also be ethically sound from the company’s point of view. Researchers frequently halt trials when they have a product that works — or manifestly doesn’t. And the two approved vaccines are 95% effective.

That very real choice for thousands of people offering to join or remain in the ongoing vaccine tests creates a conundrum for science and for society. If trials can’t go forward, that could very well have an impact on the world’s supply of covid vaccines and eventually on vaccine prices, especially if booster shots are needed in years to come. In markets where there are only two competing drugs, prices can shoot sky-high. If there are four or five on the market, competition usually kicks in to control costs.

In short, the welcome arrival of two covid vaccines deemed safe has uncovered a series of ethical and logistical challenges. And it has governments, companies and scientists scrambling for solutions.

“The world’s vaccine experts are saying the longer we can carry out a placebo-controlled trial the better,” Matthew Hepburn, who runs the vaccine development arm of Operation Warp Speed, the multibillion-dollar federal program to fight covid-19, told me. “But as a volunteer in the Janssen trial, you can always drop out.”

As for the best way to resolve broader problems, “it’s a debate in real time,” he said.

Generally, there are two aspects to the debate. First, what should be done with placebo recipients of the Moderna and Pfizer trials now that it’s clear both shots prevent the disease and appear safe? Second, how can the scores of companies in the United States and overseas that are still testing covid vaccines adapt when there are apparently reliable products already on the market?

The FDA’s advisory committee debated the first question during two meetings in December. They heard Stanford University statistician Steven Goodman argue in favor of a “double-blind crossover” modification of the Pfizer and Moderna trials. Everyone who got placebo shots in the trials would now get two doses of the real vaccine, and vice versa. That way everyone would be protected but still “blind” as to when they were properly vaccinated.

Such a rejigger of the current trial would provide more data on the vaccine’s safety and durability of protection, although the longer-term comparison of vaccine versus placebo would be lost. It’s a marvelous idea in principle, the panelists agreed, but pretty hard to carry out. Neither Moderna nor Pfizer has agreed to it.

Pfizer wants to “unblind” placebo recipients of its vaccine — to reveal they got the saline solution and give them the real thing — once their risk group gets its turn in line for the vaccine. It has already started vaccinating health care workers who got the placebo.

Moderna, which has thousands of soon-to-expire leftover doses from its trial, said it intends to unblind its trial and vaccinate all the placebo recipients. In doing so, it would be recognizing the altruistic service the test subjects made to science and society by joining the trial.

Another proposal would split the placebo recipients in the trial into two groups. In one group, everyone would get a single dose of the vaccine. In the other, each would get two doses. This would be a way of testing evidence that emerged during the Pfizer and Moderna trials that a single dose might provide sufficient protection. If that were true, vaccination of the country could happen nearly twice as fast, because there would be twice as many doses of vaccine to go around.

No one knows to what extent the Food and Drug Administration could force the hands of the two companies, which still expect to get full licensure for their vaccines this year. Moderna is considered more amenable to the suggestion since, unlike Pfizer, it got nearly $1 billion in federal funding to develop its vaccine.

Other vaccine developers — including Operation Warp Speed participants Janssen (owned by Johnson & Johnson), AstraZeneca, Novavax, Sanofi and Merck & Co. — are closely watching to see which path is taken.

They are in a race against time — a race that may not end well for those running late in getting their vaccine out. And halting those efforts could hurt billions of people elsewhere in the world whose lives and livelihoods will depend on the arrival of plentiful, cheap vaccines.

One problem is finding willing test subjects. As increasing numbers of Americans are vaccinated, and the virus recedes from our shores, “the fewer the number of people eligible to participate in trials,” said Susan Ellenberg, professor of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

For now, AstraZeneca and Janssen appear well situated. Both have closed enrollment in their U.S. trials and are likely to file within a few months for emergency use authorizations, like those that have allowed Moderna and Pfizer to start vaccinating the public.

Novavax officials last week started their late-stage trial in the U.S. and predict they can get full enrollment before the majority of the U.S. population is vaccinated.

Sanofi and Merck, whose timetables are more drawn out, are more likely to conduct most of their trials overseas.

In theory, drug companies could overcome these hurdles by testing multiple vaccines against one another and against approved vaccines. Dr. Steven Joffe, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, proposed in a recent JAMA article that Operation Warp Speed pay for such a trial.

Scientists and policymakers batted around the idea of a single U.S. trial, with multiple vaccine candidates competing against one another and a single placebo arm, during initial discussions last spring about the creation of Operation Warp Speed.

The idea went nowhere in the United States. It was taken up by World Health Organization officials and major biomedical research groups, which have tried to create such a vaccine trial in the rest of the world — with little success thus far.

So, for now, future vaccine trials are somewhat up in the air.

“There’s this tension created by getting the first vaccines out there so quickly,” said David Wendler, a senior researcher in bioethics at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center. “For public health it’s good, but it has the potential to undermine our ability to keep going on the research side and really knock out the virus.”

Companies, governments and outside funders need to quickly develop consensus on appropriate trial designs and regulatory processes for additional covid vaccines, added Mark Feinberg, president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

As for me, I decided I would stay in the Janssen trial. However, the day before I was scheduled to get my injection — real or fake — the research organization running the inoculations called to say I failed to make the cut: J&J had stopped its trial enrollment.

So, I’ll buy some new masks and get in line for my vaccine with everyone else.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.