State Education Association adds its voice to calls for accelerated COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers

The state’s current vaccine rollout plan includes teachers over 50 next month, with younger educators having to wait until April

Facing growing pressure to get children back into classrooms, the Washington Education Association (WEA), which represents teachers unions across the state, has thrown its voice behind quicker COVID-19 vaccinations for all educators.

Under a recent update to the state’s vaccine rollout plan, teachers over the age of 50 could qualify as soon as February, but those under 50 would have to wait until Tier 4 of Phase 1B, likely in April.

“We’re advocating that all educators be moved up in the priority list,” said WEA President Larry Delaney during a virtual press conference on Wednesday. “But also that if the vaccine is not available, and districts are making plans to to return to in person teaching and learning, that they slow those plans down.”

Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, speaks during a virtual press conference on Wednesday. Photo via Zoom
Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, speaks during a virtual press conference on Wednesday. Photo via Zoom

In Clark County, several school districts have already announced plans to expand hybrid in-person learning from kindergarten and at-risk students to first and second grade levels as soon as next week. The superintendents of the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts sent their own letters to Inslee’s office earlier this week making a similar request to the one from the WEA.

“We have a lot of vaccine in the state,” said Delaney. “The breakdown seems to be in being able to get those vaccines to Washingtonians, and so I think that there’s certainly work to be done and we’re happy to assist in any way that we can.”

For their part, hospitals across the state say that, contrary to numbers released by the Department of Health showing fewer than 30 percent of vaccines distributed as of last week had been used, they’re not sitting on a massive supply.

“As soon as we get supply, people are scheduled, and we are giving them,” said  Dr. Kevin Caserta, chief medical officer with Providence Southwest Washington and site administrator at Providence Centralia Hospital. “I do not believe we’ve wasted a dose yet. We call people and make sure that (they) take advantage of getting vaccinated.”

Under the current Washington Dept. of Health plan, teachers under age 50 would have to wait until April for a COVID-19 vaccine. Image courtesy Washington Department of Health
Under the current Washington Dept. of Health plan, teachers under age 50 would have to wait until April for a COVID-19 vaccine. Image courtesy Washington Department of Health

Caserta, and other hospital administrators on a press call earlier this week organized by the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA), said the biggest current obstacle to getting people vaccinated is not knowing exactly when and how many doses they’ll be getting.

In an email to Clark County Today, Mike Faust with Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said they have been in contact with the incoming presidential administration, and are hopeful Joe Biden follows through on promises to increase shipments of both vaccines.

“It’s important to get kids back in school, vaccinating all school staff is still a high priority, but moving all educators – including healthy young ones – ahead of individuals with underlying health co-morbidities would be risking more deaths,” Faust wrote. “If we can increase our supply from the federal government, we may be able to move up the timeframe for all educators and school staff.”

Hospital administrators on the WSHA call this week said scheduling vaccinations continues to be a challenge. One that has increased recently as they work to get people who’ve had their first shot in for a second dose.

“We’re seeing people have something come up at the last minute, like they’re called in for a last minute shift, and they can’t come in and take their vaccine dose,” said Dr. Karthikeyan Muthuswamy, an emergency room physician and assistant medical director at Dr. Clare Hospital in Lakewood. “Then what do we do?”

Muthuswamny says they’ve been in talks with schools and other organizations in the area to see about setting up mass vaccination clinics, in order to provide better social distancing while allowing them to sign up more people at a time.

Updated guidance issued by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last month allows schools to begin more in-person education with precautions. Image courtesy Office of Gov. Jay Inslee
Updated guidance issued by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last month allows schools to begin more in-person education with precautions. Image courtesy Office of Gov. Jay Inslee

In Clark County, Dr. Alan Melnick, the public health officer and health department director, said they are having similar conversations, seeking a regional approach to vaccinations in order to be ready once approval is given to open them up for more people.

One approach could be vaccination “pods” which allow certified nurses to take the vaccines to long-term care facilities and other congregate settings, so people don’t have to come to a hospital to receive their doses.

“If we have the ability to move them, in a way that would be the most efficient way to get people through,” said Melnick, “and get a large number of people through pretty quickly.”

In Florida, an effort to speed up the distribution of vaccines to elderly populations led to long lines and confusion in some places, with people sometimes sleeping in lines as they waited to get a dose. Melnick said their hope is that Washington state provides better clarity and a way for people to register ahead of time, rather than waiting to find out if they qualify.

“We need to make it as easy for those folks, not only to identify if they meet that category, but also not make it too onerous as they go through the process,” said Melnick.

As for schools, the governor’s office pushed back on some claims by teachers that returning to classrooms would put them at a heightened risk for COVID-19. 

Faulk pointed to data from Washington and across the country showing that, as long as health protocols are put in place and followed carefully, most schools with students back in class haven’t seen large outbreaks of infection.

In a follow-up statement on Wednesday responding to Inslee’s inauguration address, Delaney noted that K-12 and higher education budgets were likely to be cut under the governor’s budget proposal.

“We are calling on lawmakers to ensure our state’s public schools maintain the funding they need to give each student the supports they need during this pandemic,” said Delaney. “This means providing funding to implement safety guidelines, plus ensuring districts are allocated the vaccine doses quickly to protect educators.”

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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