The first vaccinations for Utah teachers and staff will start late next week — a welcome and landmark step in responding to the pandemic here where most K-12 schools have remained open.
The doses will be limited to a few thousand statewide after some earlier shipment delays. But Gov. Spencer Cox said Friday that the availability will increase quickly in the coming weeks.
“We will vaccinate as many teachers as we can,” he said during a broadcast news conference.
He has asked that the first doses be prioritized to older K-12 personnel, who are more vulnerable to serious infection from the coronavirus. That will primarily include those over the age of 65 or 70 for the first week. It will be up to school districts and county health departments, though, to organize the distribution and administration.
His office did not detail exactly how many doses will be available for the first week of the rollout with schools. But staff noted the vaccines will be offered to the roughly 70,000 K-12 employees in the state, through a staggered schedule, by the end of February. That includes about 40,000 licensed teachers and 30,000 other staff, including custodians, bus drivers, lunch workers and more.
“There’s no part of our society that COVID-19 has impacted more significantly than education,” Cox added in a later statement. “Getting the vaccine out to teachers and school staff will provide stability in our schools and improve the educational experience of our students.”
Since most schools reopened in August, there have been 24,002 cases tied to K-12. Teachers have accounted for 2,693 of those — that’s 7% of the educators in the state getting infected.
State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said in a statement Friday that she’s excited to see K-12 staff near the front of the line for immunization, in light of that. “By allowing teachers to be a priority for the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said, “we are giving them the necessary extra layer of protection to feel safe inside of their classrooms.”
All school personnel were moved up on Utah’s immunization priority list and now are scheduled after front-line hospital employees, long-term care residents and staff, and certain other health care workers. Early estimates were that they’d be able to get inoculated by early December. But shipment delays have pushed the timeline back for most and reduced the number of doses ready to distribute.
‘Our emphasis is on efficiency’
In Salt Lake County, where there’s the highest concentration of students and teachers in the state, early projections from health officials are that 7,000 doses will be spread next week among the five school districts, as well as private, charter and parochial schools.
That will cover roughly a third of staff, though none will be required to get the vaccine. There are about 30,000 school employees in the county.
Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, added, “The supply is not great. We are getting doses in arms quickly. The doses that we have available to us are either in arms or are committed through next week.”
Community Nursing Services, the nonprofit contracted with the Utah Department of Health to vaccinate some 60 long-term care facilities, now is working with districts and schools to vaccinate K-12 teachers in Salt Lake County. It currently handles the flu vaccine for teachers and students in the county.
Appointments for the COVID-19 shot will be set up through each employer.
School administrators in Salt Lake County have been tasked with deciding how they will distribute the vaccine and which staff they will prioritize.
Though they don’t know how many doses they’ll receive yet, Murray School District spokesperson Doug Perry said the five districts — Murray, Canyons, Granite, Jordan and Salt Lake City — are working together and plan to divvy the share among them based on school populations.
The more students and teachers, he said, the more doses a district will get. Murray, for instance, will get 3% of the doses given to the districts. Granite, which is the largest, will get 29%.
They also have all agreed to prioritize school staff by age, as recommended by both the governor and Community Nursing Services. The first doses will go to the oldest employees and descend down by age when more become available each week.
“It’s really complex,” Perry said. “But our emphasis is on efficiency.”
Jeff Haney, the spokesperson for Canyons School District, said each district will send out an email invitation to the employees in the selected age groups when it’s their turn to register for the vaccine.
The school staff will be getting the Moderna vaccine, confirmed Ben Horsley with Granite School District. And when they sign up to get a dose, they’ll also be scheduled to get a second dose in four weeks.
The districts plan to release more information to employees on Monday when there’s a better sense of how many they’ll be able to immunize and on what days. Horsley said they anticipate getting a few hundred doses per district next week, but it “could really snowball over the next month.”
A fight in Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City School District faces a unique challenge. It has been the only one to reopen this fall entirely online. And administrators there have faced pressure from the Legislature — including withholding a bonus for staff — to have students return in person.
Board members voted this week to make the schedule for secondary schools contingent on when all teachers in Salt Lake City have the opportunity to get both doses of the vaccine.
The district is set to get 800 doses this week, covering about 25% of its staff. Those will be administered on Thursday at West High and Highland High to those 55 and older.
Spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said Friday that the doses available next week don’t immediately change any plans. The district will still keep its junior high and high schools closed until any teacher who wants the vaccine can get it. It anticipates getting about 11% of the available doses next week — not enough to cover everyone.
That means it’s possible that secondary classrooms don’t reopen by Feb. 8. And, if so, teachers would not get the $1,500 bonus from the state.
Following an early statement from House Speaker Brad Wilson expressing disappointment over that, Senate President Stuart Adams on Friday urged Salt Lake City School District to “open in-person learning immediately.”
He noted: “Educators will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines beginning Monday. The excuses need to end at once.”
Adams pointed to a significant increase in students failing during online instruction, suggesting they need to be back in person and back on track for learning.
“In Utah, every district except one has implemented in-person learning options with precautions to help protect educators, staff and students,” he continued. “Salt Lake City School District, it is time to step up.”
Outside Salt Lake County, schools and school districts will coordinate with their local health departments to distribute the vaccine to staff.
Community Nursing Services is also contracted to work with school districts in Utah, Morgan and Weber counties. And the state said all districts in the state will be able to start scheduling vaccinations for next week, including those in more rural areas outside of the Wasatch Front.
CNS Immunization Program Director Cory Fowlks said Friday that after the first doses are supplied to teachers by age and underlying health conditions, he believes it will be “first come, first served.”
“In the end, it’s our intent to get vaccine out into every arm that’s available to the degree that we can,” he said. “We’re excited, challenged and stretched, but eager to ensure that every hour, every day is utilized to the best degree possible.”
—Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this story.