Officials: School workers eager for COVID vaccine could mean some go to waste

Officials are concerned about some school employees who schedule their own vaccination appointments when doses will be reserved for them at local clinics.

Officials are concerned about some school employees who schedule their own vaccination appointments when doses will be reserved for them at local clinics.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

With the mass vaccination of school employees set to begin next week, officials are concerned that teachers eager for shots will bypass the special clinics being planned by local health districts and instead schedule their own appointments on hospital websites or the federal portal.

This could result in teachers and other school employees being on two lists — both the list for the local health district clinic and a hospital clinic — and, ultimately, vaccines going to waste, officials said.

“The last thing we want is for superintendents to upload their rosters and the vaccine gets ordered and you assume everyone will be there the day of the clinic and then a lot of them don’t show up because they figured out how to get vaccinated quicker elsewhere,” said Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

“If teachers make their appointments elsewhere, either on VAMS or through a hospital, we can’t tell them not to and take away their personal freedom,” she added. “But everyone should know we are setting up clinics specifically for them, and this will be a lot more convenient.”

But several hospitals have already begun soliciting superintendents, offering to run special vaccination clinics on weekends for school staff, leaving some superintendents — already under pressure from teachers to move quickly — in a quandary over whether to stick to the planned script or seize the alternative.

“When we were planning this, the superintendents were told to work in partnership with local health departments, and I think most are doing that,” Rabinowitz said.

When Gov. Ned Lamont announced earlier this week the state was abandoning its original vaccination plan, which prioritized essential workers and those with certain medical conditions, in favor of an age-based rollout, he also carved out special priority for school employees and child care workers.

At the same time Lamont was announcing that change, state Department of Public Health officials were telling local health directors to complete their pending clinics for those 65 and older but not to schedule any other clinics because they would be responsible for vaccinating teachers and child care workers starting March 1.

By mid-week, DPH had asked health departments to fill out surveys estimating how many teachers and other school personnel they can vaccinate in the next month.

Besides teachers, all office staff, custodial staff and school bus drivers are eligible to be vaccinated starting next week. State officials have already told superintendents and child care providers to prepare lists so the names can be entered into the VAMS system.

Get this done quickly

Since not all local health departments are capable of holding large vaccination clinics, however, state officials anticipated that hospitals would need to help.

Some hospitals have sent out notices to school officials that they are prepared to hold clinics. Hartford HealthCare sent a letter to all school superintendents and scheduled an informational meeting Monday to discuss the details of possible clinics.

“We are working with the State of Connecticut to secure vaccine allocation and plan appointment availability for our clinics. Our goal is to open vaccine sites especially for those eligible in the child care and education sector in the month of March, on weekends and during convenient hours,” the letter said.

Hartford HealthCare’s chief clinical integration officer, Dr. James Cardon, said in an interview this week the hospital can quickly set up mobile clinics.

Cardon said state officials are aware the hospital can vaccinate as many teachers as they need them to and that they expect to be planning clinics for Saturdays and Sundays in March.

“It’s not a complicated thing for us to do, it just all comes down to [getting] vaccine in the door.”

In Waterbury, the city has partnered with St. Mary’s Hospital to vaccinate all its school staff at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School.

“Starting tomorrow morning, we will have a hotline for teachers and school staff,” Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said at a press conference Thursday attended by Lamont.

“You’ll get your appointment for your vaccination over at our mass vaccination site at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School, and we will have a section just for the teachers and the custodial staff, administrators, and so on. So we’re going to get this done very, very quickly.”

The state’s Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said at a press conference Monday that the state will be setting up teachers-only clinics, possibly even at individuals schools to make them more convenient for school staff.

The state doesn’t want teachers searching out vaccines on their own.

“We’re hoping that people will be patient and take guidance from their superintendent or their community about what those opportunities might look like,” Geballe said. “We can use this as an opportunity to take pressure off some of the mass vaccination sites and other vaccination sites that will be available for the rest of the population.”

When asked at the Wednesday press conference in Waterbury how he expects the teacher vaccine rollout will go, Lamont also referenced the local health department.

“Public health is working with the local public health departments in each and every one of the communities, and then the superintendents are reaching out as we put together a plan for each and every one of these areas,” Lamont said.

Child care workers

Office of Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye said there are about 30,000 child care workers in Connecticut who will be eligible next week for the vaccine. About 45 percent of them are Black or Hispanic, and 95 percent are female. Many of the child care facilities where they work are located in cities.

Bye said it makes sense to have local health departments involved in vaccinating child care workers because they are familiar with the employees through inspections of the centers.

There are about 4,000 programs statewide, ranging from smaller centers in people’s homes to large operations affiliated with schools. Child care workers will be asked to get vaccinated at existing health district sites.

State officials anticipate that teachers and child care workers will get vaccinated at greater rates than nursing home workers or even some hospital workers.

Martha Wiley, director of the Knight Hall School in West Hartford, said all but one of her 17-person staff wants the vaccine.

“I got so many emails from parents when the governor made the announcement. They were happy we were finally getting vaccinated,” Wiley said.

“Families will feel more at ease knowing the people taking care of their children are vaccinated,” Wiley said. “There is no way to socially distance in a child care center when you are changing diapers and taking care of small children.”