Teachers and school employees in Mariposa County are expected to be among the first of California’s 1.4 million teachers and other school staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19 when they roll up their sleeves for the shot on Monday.
Half of the rural county’s school staff, 146 people so far, have signed up for the vaccination, said Mariposa County Health Officer Eric Sergienko. A team of nurses will travel from school to school to vaccinate those who have registered to receive the immunization.
All 15 schools in the county of 17,000 residents in the Sierra Nevada foothills have been back to in-person instruction since October. Although the county is in the red tier, which signifies a substantial COVID-19 infection rate, it is one of only four California counties that is not in the purple tier, the most restrictive status due to widespread infection rates.
In an effort to accelerate what has widely been considered a slow rollout of vaccines, California officials urged health care providers on Jan. 7 to complete vaccinating medical workers and to move on to the next phase, which would include child care workers, elementary and secondary school personnel and staff at community colleges, universities and trade schools.
That next phase, known as Phase 1B, which still awaits official approval by Gov. Gavin Newsom, also includes emergency services employees, food and agriculture workersand people 75 and older — an additional 8.1 million Californians. The first group prioritized for vaccines are in Phase 1A, to be followed by Phases 1B and 1C.
Mariposa County is able to move on to vaccinating teachers and others in Phase 1B because it has nearly completed vaccinating medical staff, who are in Phase 1A. Larger counties like Los Angeles are likely to take longer to begin vaccinating school staff because they still have many health care providers to vaccinate. Los Angeles County predicts it will be able to begin Phase 1B in early February.
Putting teachers high on the vaccination list is just one of the latest moves by Newsom meant to help California schools reopen as quickly as possible. The governor recently announced the “Safe Schools for All” plan, which focuses on reopening schools to the state’s youngest students as soon as February.
President-elect Joe Biden also wants most schools to be reopened in his first 100 days in office. He is asking Congress to vote for funding, so that schools can purchase supplies and pay for the staff needed to reopen schools safely.
But vaccinating teachers may not be enough to earn support for a quick reopening of all schools from teachers unions, who must consent to reopening plans.
“It’s certainly an important part, but remember, right now there’s no research evidence that the vaccine alone eliminates or reduces transmissions,” said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It reduces illness.”
Getting the vaccine does not immediately eliminate the need for the multiple layers of safety measures at schools, including improved ventilation systems, cleaning and robust testing and tracing programs, Briggs said. School safety plans must be paired with accurate and transparent data collection and enforcement of all social distancing standards and protocols, such as requiring masks, she said. According to Briggs, many schools are struggling to put all of these safety measures in place.
With the current surge, no school in counties with purple-tier transmission rates and risk should be open or proceed with reopening, Briggs said.
The dreaded ‘purple’ status
Last week, 54 of the state’s 58 counties were in Tier 1, or purple, status, meaning there are more than seven cases per 100,000 residents or more than 8% of test results were positive over a seven-day period.
Representatives of the California Teachers Association have frequently expressed concern to lawmakers about reopening schools in communities where transmission rates are high and where schools do not have adequate testing, contact tracing or personal protective equipment. Although the governor’s new reopening plan addresses many of these issues, there are still unanswered questions about implementation, said CTA President E. Toby Boyd in a statement.
There are several other hurdles to reopening schools, including a shortage of teacher substitutes and other staff, as well as uncertainty about funds to cover education and health costs.
A 16-member Drafting Guidelines Work Group, appointed by Newsom, prioritized the order of vaccinations with input from the 60-member Community Vaccine Advisory Committee. The committee is chaired by California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and is made up of representatives from health associations, unions, civil rights organizations and nonprofits.
Lofty goal on vaccinations
The state has set a goal of completing 1 million COVID-19 vaccinations by Friday, said State Epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan at a meeting of the advisory committee last week.
About 3 million to 4 million people in Phases 1A and 1B are expected to be vaccinated by the end of the month. An additional 6 million people in Phase 1B and Phase 1C are expected to be vaccinated in February.
To be fully vaccinated, each person must get an initial vaccination and then a booster three to four weeks later. Recipients are expected to be fully protected by the vaccine a week after the last vaccination. Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are reported to be about 95% effective.
“I think it’s a great thing they are moving teachers toward the front,” said Chris Evans, superintendent of Natomas Unified in Sacramento. “This would be a significant step toward a return to normal at schools. I think the return is a ways off because of the slow rate of vaccination.”
Distribution still unclear
How vaccines will be distributed to school staff across the state is unclear. Sergienko suggests that teachers check with their principal, superintendent or school nurse to find out if any vaccination clinics are planned.
Evans said he hasn’t heard anything about how the vaccinations will be distributed to school staff in Natomas Unified and would be willing to add vaccinations to the services offered at the district’s COVID-19 testing clinic.
San Joaquin County’s Office of Education has applied to become a vaccination site for teachers and first responders, said Sheri Coburn, its director of comprehensive health programs. In anticipation, staff ordered 4,000 doses of vaccine and purchased a freezer to keep them viable.
“The time crunch with vaccinations is recognizing that people have pandemic fatigue,” Sergienko said. “The sooner we get a large percentage of the population vaccinated, the more we will have a reduction in transmission and a reduction in the number of cases.”