GVSU team of experts advising health departments on fair COVID-19 vaccine distribution

A group of Grand Valley faculty members and students is providing guidance to county health officials on how to prioritize distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, a role that has taken on even more urgency with news that immunizations could start by year's end.

In the face of difficult questions about fair distribution, some health department officials, including those in Kent and Ingham counties, reached out to experts in Grand Valley’s Philosophy Department for support, said Jeffrey Byrnes, assistant professor of philosophy and a medical ethicist, who is serving as a liaison to the health departments.

"It’s going to be a difficult process to get the vaccine to everyone who wants it," Byrnes said. "They are asking for guidance on how they should think about the ethical distribution of the vaccine, which will be in such high demand but scarce."

Jeffrey Byrnes
Jeffrey Byrnes is serving as the liaison between the GVSU work team and the health departments.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

Byrnes is joined by two philosophy colleagues, Alycia LaGuardia-LoBianco, assistant professor, and Andrew Spear, associate professor, as well as Heather Wallace, assistant professor of public health. Two philosophy students, Julia Mariotti and Mallory Wietrzykowski, are also part of the group.

Group members are developing ethical guidelines, as well as providing ongoing advice for more immediate issues.

With a resource that scarce, at least initially, the first goal is to ensure it achieves the maximum impact, Byrnes said. That means the distribution helps as many people as possible, with fairness and transparency.

"In our current moment, transparency is really crucial," Byrnes said. "Rumors about the vaccine and its distribution will move rapidly through social media. Once out, you can't hope to contain those rumors. The only preventive measure we have is to keep the whole process bathed in daylight."

Models from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and others, have outlined priorities for distributing vaccines and generally favor bolstering the societal infrastructure first, then addressing those who are vulnerable, Byrnes said.

He said health care workers are almost universally considered first in line to keep them healthy so they can be available to address the surge of Covid cases and hospitalizations, on top of all the usual health problems that afflict a community.

From there, professionals who are part of other critical community infrastructure, such as pharmacists and firefighters, would likely be prioritized, Byrnes said. The next step would involve moving on to those with vulnerabilities, such as those in long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

Byrnes is grateful for the opportunity to provide input and for the students to see the discipline of philosophy at work, not only in a field setting, but in one of great urgency.

Mariotti, a philosophy and biomedical science major, said her experience with the work group is invaluable for her career aspirations in health ethics. She came to Grand Valley with the goal of being a physician, but a health ethics class with Byrnes helped her find her true calling.

She said the pandemic has shown a spotlight on the importance of health ethics.

"When I say I work in health ethics, people now automatically know what that means," Mariotti said. "Obviously the pandemic is troubling, but in a way it has brought attention to issues that we would like everyone to think about more often."