By Polly Mikula
Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday, March 2, that school staff, child care workers and more public safety officials will now be eligible along with Vermonters with high-risk conditions to receive the Covid-19 vaccine starting next week.
“We know that getting kids back into school for in-person instruction five days a week is essential. So, with these new developments with our vaccine supply, we’ll begin the vaccination of school staff as well as childcare and early education providers,” Gov. Scott said. “The goal is to get schools fully operational.”
School-based vaccination clinics will deliver the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as that vaccine is easier to transport and administer onsite without the need for extra cold storage. School staff and child care workers can, alternatively, opt for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines through the state’s partnership with Walgreens, which will be given a list of those eligible.
The state expects to have all school staff vaccinated by the first weeks of April. There are approximately 35,000 people in this category. More details about how to enroll will be available Friday, March 5.
“These are important steps forward, and with more supply Vermonters can be optimistic that we’re on pace to be in a very good place by late spring or early summer,” Scott said.
Governor Phil Scott said at Friday’s press conference, Feb. 26, that despite all the efforts that have gone into adjusting to remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic — it’s not enough.
“As a result, our kids are not OK, and I know that’s not acceptable to any of us,” he said.
Many kids are struggling seriously enough to end up in emergency departments, he continued. In addition, kids are reporting more anxiety, stress, sleeplessness and substance misuse, according to state data.
“This is not a reflection of the hard work and commitment by our educators,” Scott said. “But it is evidence that even the very best remote learning experience doesn’t compare to the value and benefits of in-person education.”
Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell said a lack of in-person instruction means students miss out on social interaction and personal connection, a sense of safety, and the structure of routine. She also noted the toll taken on Vermont’s most vulnerable children — including those with disabilities, special health needs and those without internet access.
The governor said he would like to see all K-12 students back in class five days a week sometime in April and hopes that the new prioritization for vaccinating school teachers and staff will help.
“Vaccinating school employees is a big step in the right direction,” Vermont-NEA president Don Tinney said in a statement.
Jeff Tieman, president and CEO of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, agreed, saying, “Given how efficiently we’ve reached the most at-risk age bands, we now see opportunities to vaccinate populations that will help further reduce community spread and return us to a sense of normal. We know children have suffered greatly. We are seeing an increase in child and adolescent mental health challenges that require us to provide as much structure and connection as possible. Getting our kids back to full-time, in-person instruction is critical. Vaccinating teachers and staff will further reduce the potential spread of Covid-19 as we make that happen. It is only a matter of weeks or months before all Vermonters 16 and older will be eligible for vaccine.”
However, also at issue, particularly for middle schools and high schools, is physical space in buildings. Guidance for elementary age students is 3 feet of physical distance, but for older students it’s 6 feet — which severely limits capacity in some classrooms. If those restrictions do not change, many schools will need to seek additional/alternative spacing in order to accommodate the full population of students back in-person.
This past Monday, March 1, Vermonters age 65 and older began making vaccine appointments. On the first day, 18,000 people registered and by 9 a.m., Tuesday, that number rose to 20,200 — nearly half of the 42,000 Vermonters in this age bracket.
“We expect to complete this age group relatively quickly,” Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said, Tuesday, noting that, thus far, the state has vaccinated 106,300 Vermonters, with 47,900 receiving a first dose and 48,400 receiving both doses.
In addition to school staff, the state will also begin Phase 5 of its vaccination program on Monday, March 8, Scott said, which will include those with high-risk conditions.
There are approximately 75,000 Vermonters age 16-64 in this category, said Sec. Smith. Therefore, this phase will be broken into 5a and 5b priority groups. 5a is high risk Vermonters age 55 and older. They will be eligible to register for a vaccination appointment on March 8. 5b is those age 16-54 with high risk conditions. They will become eligible starting March 15.
Sec. Smith said that the state continues to receive increased vaccine doses from the federal government weekly and is expanding the state’s capacity to administer those doses accordingly.
This week, the state expects to receive 20,000 first doses, by March 15 it will rise to 25,000 first doses and by the month’s end the state expects 35,000 first dose each week.
“Starting tomorrow we will use the Vermont National Guard to administer the vaccine,” Sec. Smith said. They will first be deployed to a vaccination site in Burlington, then next week to Springfield and Barre, he said.
Walmart will also start vaccinations this week at its six stores in the state, Sec. Smith announced. “But you must register through state website healthvermont.gov/myvaccine, do not call the store directly,” he emphasized. (This differs from the federal pharmacy program where eligible residents can enroll directly with Walgreens and Kinney Drugs.)
In addition to school teachers and staff, the governor announced that more public safety personnel will be added to the priority 1a group and also eligible to register March 8.