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With supply short, Baltimore City, County say fewer COVID vaccines will be available for educators

With vaccine supplies still limited and appointments elusive, most Baltimore and Baltimore County teachers could have to return for in-person teaching in March without being fully inoculated.

And the city and county health departments say doses will become even more scarce for educators in the coming weeks as they prioritize other groups, such as those 75 and older and people who need their second dose of the two-dose regimen. That will leave educators who want a vaccine scrambling to find shots at other, already overwhelmed, outlets.

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The scarcity of doses comes just as some school systems in central Maryland — under pressure from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — are making plans to open their buildings to students for the first time in nearly a year.

The Biden administration also has said it wants to open schools as quickly as possible, and the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director said it is safe to reopen schools before staff are fully vaccinated. A growing body of research suggests, if community transmission is managed, there is minimal spread of the virus within schools when precautions such as masks and social distancing are used.

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Teachers unions have taken the position that they should not be forced back into classrooms until their members are fully immunized.

The Baltimore City school system has been able to secure about 500 doses each week for its staff through a partnership with Johns Hopkins Hospital. Several hundred other educators will get inoculated through the University of Maryland Medical System.

But the Baltimore City Health Department said earlier this week that for the rest of February it would be reserving its weekly allotment of vaccine from the state for those who need a second dose.

Aside from those limited number of doses, city school staff will be competing with about 2 million people in the state looking for appointments at grocery stores, pharmacies, mass vaccination centers and hospitals, most of which already are clogged.

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In Baltimore County, Health Officer Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch said he has offered 5,500 vaccine doses to educators, from those who teach in day care settings to college faculty and staff.

But from this week on he will be concentrating his supply on those in health care and other highest-priority jobs and the 30,000 people who are 75 and older and have registered with the county seeking an appointment. That group of seniors, he said, are the age group most at risk of death if they get COVID-19.

Only 100 shots will be designated for educators, including those in higher education.

“I have given educators a goodly number of doses at this point,” Branch said. “If I don’t concentrate on one group I am not ever going to get that down.”

Alison Perkins-Cohen, the Baltimore City schools chief of staff, said that the school system has prioritized those who already have been working in school buildings and those who will be going back soon. The system asked 5,000 of their staff whether they want to be vaccinated and only about 2,100 expressed interest. It is unclear, she said, why so few are asking.

If Johns Hopkins is able to provide 500 shots a week, about 2,000 staff — teachers, cafeteria workers, principals and maintenance employees — should be able to get the first shot by the time students begin returning on March 1. Teachers also have been able to receive vaccinations in other places.

“It is a little tight, but that is going to loosen up in the next few weeks,” said Perkins-Cohen, adding that she expects the federal government to increase the doses allocated to the states.

“We are making good progress in getting vaccines for those who want it,” she said.

State and local education leaders say that going back into classrooms should not depend on the vaccination schedule because with social distancing, masking and other precautions, schools are safe to reopen. As of the end of January, 58% of the nation’s largest 1,200 school districts were operating on a hybrid schedule or fully open, according to Burbio, a company that tracks school schedules.

Not all states have begun vaccinating teachers yet. Education Week reported that, as of Thursday, educators teaching kindergarten through 12th grade are eligible for vaccines in about 24 states.

Appointments to get the vaccine in Maryland have been difficult to obtain because demand exceeds the state’s supply.

One Baltimore County educator, Connie Betts said she is eager to get back to the classroom where she has worked as kindergarten assistant for about 11 years.

The 63-year-old, who has an underlying lung condition, has filled out multiple forms requesting appointments for a vaccine at the Timonium Fairgrounds, Baltimore City’s convention center clinic, MedStar Health, RiteAid and Giant.

“It’s been rough,” she said. “Everybody is saying they don’t have any appointments available.”

Betts has started keeping hard copies of each form she fills out in a manila folder on her desk at home — a practice she embraced after a ransomware attack crippled the school system in November. The documents, she hopes, will be her talisman if she arrives for an appointment and is turned away.

“We should be able to get our shot,” she said. “I really do want to come back, but I don’t want to put my health at risk.”

Betts hasn’t decided yet what she’ll do if she’s asked to return to school facilities later this month.

Baltimore County health officials set up a vaccine distribution clinic and began targeting educators for appointments Jan. 22. The department set aside a number of slots each week specifically for public school employees, but it’s up to administrators to prioritize educators for those appointments.

School leaders have identified about 2,500 employees to prioritize for vaccination based on job titles and the amount of contact they would have with students. The list includes those who distribute meals, work with the system’s youngest learners or are employed at the four separate public day schools for students with severe disabilities.

In the first week that educators were eligible for vaccination, school officials emailed about 1,000 prioritized employees a link to schedule an appointment at Timonium Fairgrounds. But privacy protections meant school leaders have no way of counting how many emails result in vaccinations, said Debbie Somerville, a health services coordinator for the county schools.

Somerville said a volunteer stood outside the fairgrounds clinic Jan. 22 and used a handheld push-button device to tally 609 public school employees arriving for appointments. Another 1,000 emails containing links were distributed the following week from the same list of 2,500 prioritized employees, but no data was collected at the time, Somerville said.

Navigating the process of getting a vaccine is confusing, she said. Marylanders want the shots but don’t always understand how to get through the door.

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“People would like to understand where they are in line, but the queue is more complex than that,” Somerville said.

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Although state and local leaders have pointed out that school reopening plans never hinged on the availability of vaccines, a majority of the Baltimore County teachers union have indicated they want doses, said union President Cindy Sexton.

The Teachers Association of Baltimore County recently slammed Hogan’s call for schools to bring students back for in-person instruction by March.

Sexton said her phone has been ringing non-stop this week as union members call with questions about taking leaves of absence or setting up special accommodations when buildings reopen.

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