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Diminishing first doses of COVID-19 vaccine deliveries a hurdle for Harford health department as some teachers get first shots

In another year, the tiled halls of Patterson Mill High School would be bustling, but the crowd was more sedate Wednesday as Harford County teachers and seniors filed through the doors to get their first doses of the coronavirus vaccine.

The Harford County Health Department continued its drive to vaccinate teachers and senior citizens at its Patterson Mill clinic Wednesday. About 500 doses would be distributed by the end of the day, but diminishing shipments of first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from the state leave the department questioning whether it will have enough for all the county’s teachers.

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Lynda Boegner, director of the county health department’s clinical health bureau, said the agency generally gets notice of its vaccine allocation on Saturday from the state and uses that number to plan the week’s schedule of vaccinations. Week over week, she said, the vaccine shipments of first doses from the state are getting smaller.

The state mandates that county health departments set aside second doses of the Moderna vaccine for those who have already received their first shot, Boegner said, which further stretches the immediately usable supply. The second shot is the same as the first. So even though the county’s total vaccine shipments are getting larger, that does not mean all the doses can be used when they arrive.

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Second-dose shipments outnumbered the 1,300 first-doses received Jan. 25 by 600, according to figures from the health department. That shipment was the first time that second-dose allocations outnumbered first dose allocations.

If the number of delivered doses continues decreasing, Boegner said the county’s ability to vaccinate all its eligible and willing teachers would be “questionable.”

“It has been going down each week,” she said. “Our first dose allocation, weekly, has gone down from the state, so that means that those two weeks we planned teachers’ first doses, we might not have enough of them.”

HCPS employees who work in elementary schools began getting vaccinated Monday. Those who work in secondary schools are scheduled to start getting their shots Feb. 8.

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The vaccine’s availability also limits the number of vaccination clinics that can be run simultaneously, Boegner said. The health department wants to run more simultaneous clinics, but cannot if it has insufficient amounts of the vaccine.

Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the Harford Health Department, said that the number of first doses delivered are diminishing each week, “but we hope that production will pick up since more and more places will have the vaccine.”

Harford County, like other localities in Maryland, is struggling with vaccine availability.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Tuesday that about 2 million to 3 million shots are needed to inoculate everyone currently eligible in Maryland. If the quantities of vaccine delivered stay the same, it could take months for the state to get through that group, which includes people over 65, teachers, clergy, front-line judiciary staff and some essential workers.

The Patterson Mill clinic is open every day, though the health department is not sure where the clinic will move to once schools bring students back in March, Boegner said. On Monday, Harford County Public Schools released a plan to start bringing elementary school students back once a week March 1 and middle and high school students on March 15.

The health department has inoculated about 300 teachers since Monday, Boegner said. A total of 6,247 residents have been vaccinated so far, Mraz said.

About 44,000 county residents have pre-registered, and the health department received 1,300 doses this week, Mraz said. Beginning Feb. 1, the department will offer three clinics each day, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m, she said.

Southampton Middle School nurse Michele Keeney talks with Joppatowne Elementary School teacher Aaron Keithley as he arrives for his COVID-19 vaccination during the vaccination clinic at Patterson Mill Middle / High School Wednesday, January 27, 2021.
Southampton Middle School nurse Michele Keeney talks with Joppatowne Elementary School teacher Aaron Keithley as he arrives for his COVID-19 vaccination during the vaccination clinic at Patterson Mill Middle / High School Wednesday, January 27, 2021. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Teachers get vaccinated

It has been a strange first year of teaching, Aaron Keithley conceded, but one that is looking brighter. Seated in Patterson Mill’s hallway, the Towson University graduate waited the required observation period after receiving the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine — one he said makes him feel better about returning to in-person classes.

Keithley, who teaches fourth grade at Joppatowne Elementary, said he was apprehensive to get the vaccine at first, but after discussion with his colleagues and a fellow teacher who also works in the medical field, he came around to getting the shot. He said it was a critical step in getting kids back in school, which “does need to happen.”

Though he agreed that kids needed to return to in-person learning, he said that the school system could have used more notice of Gov. Larry Hogan’s push to reopen schools.

“I think the pressure from the governor came on a little quick, and I think a lot of other teachers would echo that,” he said. “I do not want to say it was misplaced ... if we could have had those guidelines and a little longer of a time frame to get set up and get ready to go back safely, I feel like teachers would have been more excited and ready to go back.”

Keithley said he understands parents’ frustrations and is aware of the harsh words said against school officials, the board of education and, sometimes, teachers. He said he tries be more patient and not take it personally.

Jessica Eyster, who teaches kindergarten at Riverside Elementary, said she was excited to see her class again. The process of getting the vaccine Wednesday was quick and easy, she said, and helpful to the return to in-person classes. In her view, families should decide how comfortable they are returning their children to classes.

“I think that because it is up to the families, who are we as teachers to tell them whether they should send their child back?” she said. “I feel like it’s not my personal choice, and my job is to serve the community, and I feel better being vaccinated.”

Eyster is excited to see her class in-person once schools reopen, and hopeful for the future. She’s also enthused about teaching in-person again; kindergartners are not easily managed or taught through an internet connection, she said. Still, the data she monitors shows that the children are learning.

Savanna Robinson, a kindergarten teacher at Edgewood Elementary, said she was happy to get the vaccine and glad to have access to it. Similarly, she was glad parents had the choice to send their kids back to school or continue with virtual learning.

Her impression was that the majority of teachers wanted to return to in-person instruction, and that getting the vaccine would make them more confident to return.

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“I do like the fact that we have the option to get the vaccine before we go back; that does make me more comfortable,” she said. “Everyone can do what they are most comfortable with, whether they want to send their kids back or they want to keep them home until they are more comfortable.”

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that shipments of first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine has been diminishing, even as total doses received has gone up.

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