As Vaccination Pace Quickens, State Shifts Teachers, High-Risk People to Front of Queue | Off Message

As Vaccination Pace Quickens, State Shifts Teachers, High-Risk People to Front of Queue

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Health care workers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine - COURTESY OF RYAN MERCER/UVM HEALTH NETWORK
  • Courtesy of Ryan Mercer/UVM Health Network
  • Health care workers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine

Weeks of lobbying have paid off for educators. On Tuesday, state officials announced that teachers, school staff, and childcare workers will be able to start receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine beginning on March 8.

Those vaccinations are expected to be completed in early April. Meanwhile, the state will open registration next week for people with high-risk conditions, starting with Vermonters age 55 and above on March 8, followed by Vermonters 16-55 on March 15.

And police staff, 911 call-takers and staff working in correctional facilities have been added to the list of workers eligible in early March for the vaccines, state officials said.  If the Vermont vaccination schedule continues on its current course, everyone in the state who wants a vaccine could have one by the middle of the summer.

Right now, about 9 percent of Vermonters are fully vaccinated. Cases of COVID-19 have decreased about 20 percent since February.

“There is now clear light at the end of the pandemic tunnel,” said Human Services Secretary Mike Smith during one of the Scott administration’s twice-weekly press conferences.

Vaccination is seen as a critical step toward getting schools, businesses and social activities back to where they were before Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency almost one year ago.

The vaccination schedule to date has focused on the Vermonters who are seen as most vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19, including people in long-term care and the elderly. The state on Monday opened vaccination registration to people who are 65 and older, a population of about 42,000. That group is expected to be inoculated by mid-March.

The state has long planned to vaccinate those at higher risk next. The long list of qualifying conditions for that group includes cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, sickle cell disease, diabetes types I and II, pregnancy and severe obesity with a body mass index of over 40, said Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

Those at high risk don’t need to bring any kind of proof from a medical office, Levine said, though they will be asked to name their provider and the state might check with them. He added that those without any health care provider are also eligible for the vaccines.

“This will serve as self-certification,” Levine said. “We trust you to work with us and help make sure that those Vermonters at highest risk due to a medical condition are protected.”

The group including school staff and those at higher risk  includes about 100,000 people in all. The state will set up some clinics staffed by the Vermont National Guard; the state Health Department and school nurses will also provide shots. Once this group is finished in mid-April, the state will have vaccinated about one-third of its residents, officials said. 

“All of this is dependent on an ongoing supply from the federal government,” Smith cautioned Tuesday.  The state is expected to receive 20,000 doses this week. Walmart will start offering the vaccinations at its six Vermont stores, and Kinney Drugs will offer a vaccination clinic March 7 at Spaulding High School in Barre, where more than 1,000 doses will be available.

Scott joined the press conference after participating in a weekly call with other governors and the White House, and he described a dynamic situation. The pharmaceutical giant Merck on Tuesday announced it had joined forces with Johnson & Johnson to produce the latter company's single-dose vaccine.

“I think that's where we're going to see vastly increased supply in the near future,” Scott said.

It’s also unclear exactly how many doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Vermont will receive in March, the governor noted. But by the end of the month, that's expected to be around 4,000 doses weekly; in April, that could climb to 6,000, he said.

Teachers and school employees are not the only ones who have been lobbying hard to be included in the early stages of the vaccine schedule. Many grocery store employees have noted that they interact with the public and have a heightened risk of catching the virus. But Levine said that didn’t justify adding those workers to the front of the vaccine queue. 

“They still do work in an environment where there can be physical distancing,” he said, adding that the public has generally adhered to masking rules. “The reality is, the public is there at all times, I understand that, but it doesn’t mean that your risk is heightened at all times. We’re not seeing that, certainly not in the statistics with regard to who has the worst outcomes in Vermont.”

He added that these workers will soon get their vaccines through the regular schedule, based on their ages.

“We anticipate more Johnson & Johnson coming in, and continuing allocations of the Pfizer and Moderna [vaccines], so the next sets of age bands will go much more briskly, just as these most recent ones are going,” Levine said.

The state’s decision to accelerate the schedule for school workers was prompted by evidence that students are suffering under the remote and hybrid learning systems, said Smith.

“This is not anybody's fault,” he said. “It is, however, the unfortunate fact that part-time, in-person instruction and remote learning is not meeting their needs."