A UPS Airlines Boeing 757 transporting the COVID-19 vaccine from Michigan. Rey Del Rio/Getty
The Federal Aviation Administration has given the green light for pilots seeking to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine but with restrictions.
Pilots cannot fly for 48 hours after receiving the injections as the side effects may hinder the safe operation of an aircraft, the FAA says.
The second COVID-19 airlift is relying on pilots to transport the vaccine on planes across the US and beyond in the coming months.
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The second COVID-19 airlift has begun with airlines transporting the vaccine from Pfizer’s manufacturing plant in Michigan to states across the union and beyond.
UPS Airlines and FedEx Express planes were tasked with the very first flights as part of a massive logistical endeavor that will hopefully end the pandemic.
Passenger airlines are also announcing their first vaccine flights as American Airlines reported flying its first doses on a Boeing 777 aircraft from Chicago to Miami on Sunday night. United Airlines had brought the first doses of the vaccine to the US from Belgium in November after overcoming a major hurdle in transporting Pfizer’s vaccine.
And while the first inoculations have already been performed on the public, airline pilots are facing restrictions from the Federal Aviation Administration.
New guidance from the US’ aviation regulator issued after Friday’s landmark emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration allows pilots to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine but warns that they can’t fly for two days following the injection.
“To maintain the highest level of safety in the National Airspace System, the agency will require aviation professionals with medical certifications or medical clearances to observe a period of 48 hours following the administration of this vaccine before conducting safety-sensitive aviation duties, such as flying or controlling air traffic,” the FAA said in a statement.
The two most common side effects were pain at the injection site and fatigue, as Business Insider’s Andrew Dunn reported, followed by headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain, and fever. Those symptoms slightly mirror the virus itself and can present a challenge to pilots tasked with operating heavy machinery, such as an airplane.
Pilots must also adhere to the 48-hour rule after the second injection.
Read more: 6 cargo airlines and freight operators poised to win big as Pfizer begins US distribution of its COVID-19 vaccine
The decision was highly anticipated as the FAA regulates which drugs pilots can and cannot take in order to keep their wings.
Airline pilots need to pass a medical screening by an aviation medical examiner every six months for pilots under 40 years of age and 12 months for younger pilots while non-commercial pilots have a less stringent examination schedule. If airline pilots don’t meet the requirements for what’s known as a first-class airman medical certification, they can no longer keep their position.
Air traffic controllers tasked with coordinating the movement of aircraft in the National Airspace System are also required to wait 48 hours before returning their duties. Since March, air traffic control facilities have been closed for cleaning if a case of COVID-19 was detected, leaving pilots to their own devices at major airports like Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport and temporarily stopping air traffic completely at others like Chicago’s Midway International Airport.
The FAA has said that aircraft carrying the vaccine will be given priority over other flights, similar to medical evacuation flights, and the job of an air traffic controller is often stressful.
Pilots can be denied the medical certificate for a variety of health reasons ranging from having an ailment such as bipolar disease to receiving medical treatments such as a heart replacement, according to the FAA. Even taking some weight loss or anti-smoking medications can result in disqualification.
The FAA also doesn’t typically allow medications that have been approved by the FDA until a year after but a special exception was made for the COVID-19 vaccine considering its importance in ending the pandemic, an agency spokesperson told Business Insider.
Other vaccines also require a waiting period before pilots can fly, the agency noted, such as for Typhoid and Tuberculosis.
Pilots unions have been asking Congress to put pilots towards the front of the line for receiving the vaccine as they interact with the public on a daily basis. In the US, healthcare workers and the elderly remain the first priority with a New York nurse receiving one of the first injections on Monday with Governor Andrew Cuomo virtually present to mark the occasion.
Subsequent vaccines from Moderna and other pharmaceutical companies will also need to be approved by the FAA before pilots can receive them but the agency has shown a willingness in approving the Pfizer drug to quickly review and issue guidance on new vaccines.
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