“It’s damnable that we are even being placed in this position that we have to make these choices,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, a co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national coalition that calls attention to the challenges of the working poor. “But if we have to make the choice, we cannot once again leave poor and low-wealth essential workers to be last.”

Ultimately, the choice comes down to whether preventing death or curbing the spread of the virus and returning to some semblance of normalcy is the highest priority. “If your goal is to maximize the preservation of human life, then you would bias the vaccine toward older Americans,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said recently. “If your goal is to reduce the rate of infection, then you would prioritize essential workers. So it depends what impact you’re trying to achieve.”

The trade-off between the two is muddied by the fact that the definition of “essential workers” used by the C.D.C. comprises nearly 70 percent of the American work force, sweeping in not just grocery store clerks and emergency responders, but tugboat operators, exterminators and nuclear energy workers. Some labor economists and public health officials consider the category overbroad and say it should be narrowed to only those who interact in person with the public.