Despite a state push to move teachers toward the front of the coronavirus vaccination line so that school buildings can reopen more quickly, many teachers aren’t likely to complete their inoculation for months unless larger quantities of the vaccines are shipped to the state.
State education officials have declined to answer any questions on whether they have a state-led distribution plan after Gov. Larry Hogan announced last week he was bumping teachers into the second group prioritized to receive vaccines.
Local health officials say they expect to be responsible for vaccinating their county’s educators once health workers, first responders and nursing home patients and staff are finished. When it’s time to vaccinate educators, the health departments said they will work with superintendents to prioritize school staff for vaccination.
When that may happen is likely to vary widely across the state due to a slower-than-expected vaccine rollout across Maryland and nation — setting the stage for a patchwork quilt of school openings.
The majority of students in the Baltimore region have not been inside schools since March, and anger is growing among parents to get schools reopened, even as the pandemic rages. President-elect Joe Biden has said he will get students back in school within the first 100 days of his administration, but teachers unions have been reluctant to commit to returning until the virus is contained and safety measures are in place.
The Maryland State Education Association, which represents the majority of the state’s teachers, said it could not comment on whether its members would feel safe returning until details of a vaccination plan were more widely known.
Caroline County on the Eastern Shore already has begun vaccinating its teachers, but other areas of the state could be weeks or months away.
Baltimore County Health Officer Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch said he is limited by the amount of vaccine his county receives each week, but he could begin vaccinating educators as soon as he gets approval from the state.
This week, Branch said, the county will receive 6,825 doses and will use all of the allotment within a week.
“We are limited by the amount of vaccine that they give me. That is not the max I can give out in a week,” Branch said.” If I need to ramp up, I can ramp up.”
Branch said there are 20,000 county public school employees, and he has asked the school system to prioritize those who come into contact with students and other staff.
The state’s overall vaccination plan calls for county health departments to finish vaccinating health care workers, first responders and nursing home residents and staff before moving on, but some health officials said they expect some overlap with the next group — which includes teachers and people over 75 years old.
In Caroline County health officer Laura F. Patrick, said her small county has started to deliver shots into the arms of the 1,100 teachers, early childcare providers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other school-based staff and will continue to do so until they are all vaccinated. The county, which is ahead of most other jurisdictions, has been able to immediately use up all the roughly 400 doses it gets each week.
Patrick, a nurse who is giving some of the shots herself, said the health department’s success is due to coordination between agencies. Caroline has used up its vaccine allotments faster than nearly all other counties in the state. First responders and school nurses are helping vaccinate, and librarians are helping schedule appointments for the shots.
Patrick even went to Walmart to purchase small kitchen timers to give to people as they got shots so that they know when they have stayed 15 minutes to see if they will have an allergic reaction to the vaccine.
“I completely wiped out the supply in Walmart,” she said.
They have one clinic open in the conference room in the health department, but they have managed to get hundreds of people through each day.
Patrick believes she will have given all school staff their first dose by the end of January. A second would come within a month.
In counties with larger populations and hospitals, the vaccination of health care workers is taking much longer. Harford County’s Health Officer Dr. David Bishai said he does not believe he will have finished the first priority group of health care workers before the end of February, at which point the county could move on to educators.
While educators are in the second-highest priority group, they will have to stand in line with all those 75 years and older.
Bishai said while it would take only about a week and a half to vaccinate most of county’s estimated 5,800 educators, Harford County also has about 15,000 residents at least 75 years old.
“I would love to do it faster,” he said, but the distribution of vaccines has been slow. “Will there be 20,000 (doses) in my refrigerator at the end of February? I don’t know. I am confident the state of Maryland doesn’t know.”
Carroll County officials already have provided vaccines for school nurses, who qualify as health care workers under first phase of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, said county health planner Maggie Kunz.
Still, Carroll officials say there has been little notice before each shipment of vaccines arrive, so they’re careful not to make promises for distribution until the doses are in hand. Last week, Carroll received about 1,100 doses, with another 1,500 expected to arrive this week, Kunz said. When it’s time to vaccinate educators, the school system likely will bring staff into feeder schools to receive their dose.
Anne Arundel County health department declined to make a representative available for an interview before deadline. Baltimore City declined to comment.
Vaccinating teachers and staff is not the only obstacle to returning to in-person instruction, since parents also will have to feel comfortable sending their children back into schools without a vaccine.
The Evening Sun
Last fall about half of parents polled said they would send their children back if there were precautions, but that figure has declined nationwide since the number of cases of the virus has spread rapidly.
However, a growing body of evidence supports reopening, said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins University researcher.
“I continue to believe that it is possible to bring children safely back to school,” said Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, during a regular Hopkins news briefing on the virus.
“The risk is always more about teachers and staff than children ...,” she said. “The data continues to show, this virus doesn’t affect children nearly the same way as adults.”
Given the societal role schools play, she said, vaccinating teachers so they feel safe in classrooms “is a worthy goal.”
“We continue to see data from other countries and other places that it is possible to reopen schools and do so safely,” Nuzzo said. “It will require resources but also a commitment that schools will be the first to open and the last to close, which may require society to close other things so we worry less about possible outbreaks happening in schools.”