Oregon is pressing forward with plans to be one of a small number of states to offer COVID-19 vaccines to school teachers and education staff before the elderly and those with chronic health conditions.
Governor Kate Brown joined teachers and officials from the Oregon Health Authority in a carefully choreographed press conference Friday, Jan. 22, to defend the decision.
“It’s really pretty simple: I’m using every single tool we have to get kids back into the classroom this school year,” Brown said.
That’ll be hard to do safely until the teachers and educational staff who can see hundreds of students per day are vaccinated against the virus. So, the state’s put those individuals near the top of the vaccine priority list, right below health care workers and first responders.
“We also know so many families have been unable to meet the needs of distance learning,” Brown said.
Brown and the other state leaders put the decision simply, saying that vaccinating teachers and educational staff before seniors and the elderly is the only way the state’s students will be able to return to in-person classes before the school year ends.
“There’s exponential value here too. For every teacher who’s back in the classroom, they help 20, 30, 35 students get their life back on track,” Brown said. “The harsh reality is we are managing a scarce resource right now. I wish, I wish we had more vaccines right now.”
Still, there is a bright spot for Oregon’s seniors: Brown said the state had completed the first dose of vaccinations for seniors living in long-term care centers, which have made up over half the state’s virus deaths.
Though COVID cases and hospitalizations statewide have been on the decline in recent weeks, the conference came during the deadliest week of the pandemic to date, with 195 deaths reported statewide.
“We know that deaths are a lagging indicator, and they take a while to show up, but each of these deaths leaves a hole in the lives of friends, family and neighbors,” said Rachel Banks, public health director with the Oregon Health Authority.
Still, the majority of deaths in Oregon associated with the virus – 77% – have been associated with people 70 years and older.
The choice to put that group behind Oregon’s educators in line for the vaccine comes down to how quickly the state will be able to vaccinate teachers and staff, said Dave Baden, OHA’s chief financial officer who presented statistics on the state’s expected dose delivery and use schedule.
“We could have taken a different path. We could have vaccinated seniors first,” Baden said. “But because we could only count on 50,000 prime doses per week, in that scenario we wouldn’t reach a critical mass of educators until we were well into May.”
Instead, Baden said the state’s plan pushes vaccinations of Oregon’s seniors out two weeks from what had been previously planned, when the state expected a greater number of doses. That means seniors over 80 will be eligible for the vaccine starting Feb. 8, and other seniors will be eligible in the weeks after that.
In the meantime, the state’s 105,000 teachers and school staff and 47,000 early learning workers will be eligible for the vaccine Jan. 25. Baden projected over half will have the first dose of the vaccine by the time seniors become eligible.
What’s more, given the state’s current rate of vaccinations, Baden projected about two thirds of the phase 1A population, which includes a broad range of health care workers, will be vaccinated by Jan. 25. By May, he expects the state will have vaccinated a “critical mass” of its seniors.
While Baden said the state might receive an increased supply of vaccines in the coming weeks, that’s not certain, and the state’s efforts are entirely dependent on the supply it receives.
“Let me emphasize, our timelines depend on the doses we receive from the federal government, Baden said. “If we receive more, we can move faster. If we receive less, we’ll have no choice but to slow down.”
During Friday’s conference, the governor invited teachers and a student to help her make the case for vaccinating the education workforce ahead of seniors.
“The main concern I hear is that many parents, caregivers and guardians feel ill-equipped to help teach their child, while also showing a great deal of concern about their child’s social-emotional health and the feelings of isolation,” said Nicole Butler-Hooton, who teaches second grade in Eugene.
Butler-Hooton said online learning has been hard for students, who’ve reported depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and a lack of motivation while they’re unable to join peers and teachers in the classroom.
Mayra Pelayo, a kindergarten teacher in Ontario, went on to say teachers also want to be back in the classroom.
“I am grateful that teachers are next in line for the COVID vaccines. We are just full of emotions – we know everybody needs those vaccines, but we really want our schools to open, and all the teachers to be protected, because at the end, we are parents, we are mothers, we are daughters, we have kids and we want to be safe too,” Pelayo said. “But we really want to be protected, and we are desperate to get back in our classrooms.”
Friday’s final speaker, before the governor took just three questions about her plans, made the most impassioned plea for a return to in-person school.
“Over this past year, I have been astonished to hear more of my peers come to me and say, ‘I just can’t do it anymore, I just can’t,’” said Yosalin Arenas Alvarez, a senior at South Medford High School.
Alvarez compared reopening schools to baking a cake: Everyone wants cake, but the right steps (like vaccinating teachers, in the case of schools) have to be followed to make sure it’s done correctly.
“Please, as the amazing Oregon as I know you to be, can we come together and make a cake, and not a loaf of bread?” Alvarez asked.