Colin Deppen of Spotlight PA
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HARRISBURG — Vaccination sites for teachers and school support staff will begin operating as soon as next week, Pennsylvania officials said Thursday, while thousands of additional doses will be earmarked for child-care workers through private pharmacy partnerships.
Pennsylvania’s initial 94,000-dose shipment of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine will be administered to teachers and support staff through 28 local and regional education service agencies, called Intermediate Units, Health Secretary Alison Beam said.
The designated sites will be operated with help from the Pennsylvania National Guard. The state’s emergency management director, Randy Padfield, provided more specificity, saying he expected those clinics to begin operating between March 10 and March 13.
“The vast majority of the clinics will be able to provide up to 500 vaccinations a day, with some clinics and Intermediate Units with larger numbers of educators and support staff being able to support up to 1,000 doses a day,” Padfield said during a Thursday morning news conference.
Padfield said multiple clinics or mobile clinics are a possibility in Intermediate Units covering a large geographic area. Clinics will operate daily and on weekends.
School staff working with students with disabilities, second-language learners, and other vulnerable demographics are being prioritized first in the interest of getting those students who benefit most from in-person learning back in classrooms, Beam said. Pre-K and elementary teachers will also be an early focus of the rollout.
Thousands more doses will be earmarked for child-care workers through the state’s partnership with privately-owned pharmacy chains like Costco, Rite Aid, and Walmart. Beam said school workers will receive instructions from their employer, while child-care workers will be contacted by pharmacy providers directly using contact information furnished by the state.
With a limited supply and lingering uncertainty about future shipments, Beam said surveys of school staff will help identify demand and target deliveries by first determining how many teachers have already received a COVID-19 vaccine.
Shipments to individual intermediate units, Beam added, “should be reflective of the amount of teachers that have not gotten vaccines.”
The number of educators statewide far exceeds the amount of Johnson & Johnson vaccine currently available to them. That raised questions about Gov. Tom Wolf’s claim Wednesday that the bulk of Pennsylvania educators could be “back to work by the end of the month.”
Asked to elaborate on the forecast, Beam said: “It’s our understanding that we’ll have this initial tranche of Johnson & Johnson vaccine distributed to Pennsylvania, which will unfortunately be followed by roughly two weeks where that will dip and, actually, we may receive zero Johnson & Johnson shots, but then, by the end of the month, it’s our understanding that that commitment will not only be reestablished, it could even exceed what we received this week.”
With demand in the general population still vastly outpacing the existing vaccine supply, Beam was asked why the state was moving teachers ahead of those who are eligible and have spent months chasing doses for themselves or elderly parents while contending with signup systems beset by technical difficulties and canceled appointments.
“We constructed a pathway for our teachers and our educators to get vaccinated without putting additional stress on the hospitals or the other providers that are currently working to address that (Phase) 1A population,” Beam said, “and so we have tried tremendously hard to allow us to be able to not exacerbate any of the current frustrations that folks have felt with getting a vaccination through the traditional 1A pathway.”
Beam reiterated that the push to vaccinate teachers with a special allocation is being treated as separate from the state’s ongoing vaccination rollout, and is not expected to slow down the vaccination timetable for Pennsylvanians in the Phase 1A group.
Wolf’s teacher vaccine rollout announcement Wednesday came amid a push by the Biden administration to make teachers and child-care staff eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine at some 9,000 participating pharmacy locations nationwide, even if their state hasn’t declared them eligible yet.
It also came days after Wolf eased gathering rules and lifted statewide COVID-19 travel restrictions, and almost exactly one year after the governor first ordered schools closed.
The year since has been marked by deep concerns from parents, many navigating the challenges of online learning for the first time, and education advocates who feared hastily drawn remote learning models would result in a “lost year” for many American students.
Those concerns were only heightened by deep access gaps around the technology needed to make virtual learning a reality.
“Let’s not forget that one year ago, history was made as school buildings across Pennsylvania were ordered to close due to COVID-19,” said Acting Pennsylvania Education Secretary Noe Ortega, who joined Beam during Thursday’s news conference.
“Each day, week, and month that followed introduced new challenges, intensified inequities, and brought about unparalleled obstacles.”
But while Wolf faced mounting pressure to reopen schools from the public, teachers unions in some of Pennsylvania’s largest districts urged mass vaccinations of staff and personnel.
“This is an incredibly important step toward returning Pennsylvania’s schools and communities to in-person instruction and ensuring that students, school staff members, their families, and their communities are better protected from COVID-19,” Rich Askey, president of PSEA, a union representing more than 187,000 teachers statewide, said of Wolf’s school vaccination plan.
“Making the vaccine available to school staff is a key step to getting more students back in the classroom, more parents back to work without worry, and our economy back on track.”
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