Mass clinics and mobile vaccine sites: How Pa. plans to vaccinate school employees against COVID-19

By: - March 5, 2021 7:12 am

National Guard units prepare vaccines in Maryland. Pennsylvania may enlist its guardsmen to help in vaccine missions if Gov. Tom Wolf signs a bill lawmakers sent him this week.

Nearly 100,000 public and private school employees could be vaccinated against COVID-19 within the next two weeks, according to details about a new vaccination initiative the Wolf administration made public Thursday. 

Mass vaccination clinics dedicated solely to Pennsylvania’s school employees should be fully operational starting March 10, with many on track to administer 500 to 1,000 vaccines each day, Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday. 

Those sites will be stocked with 94,600 vials of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Officials hope the entire supply will be exhausted within 10 days once clinics start administering shots.

Since the Johnson & Johnson vaccine takes two weeks to offer patients full immunity, the 94,000 school employees who receive doses should reap robust protection against COVID-19 by the end of March. Here’s what we know so far about the state’s plans to get doses into the arms of educators. 

Who’s eligible?

Anyone who works at a public or private school in Pennsylvania will be able to get a vaccine under the Wolf administration’s new school vaccination initiative. But some will have to wait until later this month. 

The state is giving early priority to teachers who work with pre-k and elementary students, as well as English language learners and students with disabilities. Wolf said Wednesday that these students have been the most vulnerable to learning losses during school shutdowns and deserved priority to return to classrooms.

State officials added Thursday that the first priority group will also include bus drivers, school support staff and other employees who have direct contact with children.

Once every willing worker in the first priority group has gotten a vaccine, the state will open enrollment to teachers working with older students. 

Vaccinations will be elective, and no school employee will be required to get one, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said Thursday.

How do I sign up?

Educators and other school staff should soon receive more details from their employers about signing up for vaccines, Beam said.  

Padfield said that Intermediate Units – regional educational agencies that provide IT support and other services to public schools – will handle scheduling for public and private schools in their jurisdiction. 

IUs will provide each school with a list of appointments available to their employees, which staff will claim using an online registration tool.

The state will divvy up vaccine doses according to the number of eligible school employees in each IU region. But Beam said officials are also trying to determine how many employees have already been vaccinated, so they can take those figures into account when allocating doses. 

Will I have to travel far?

Most of the vaccine clinics will take place at Intermediate Units, Padfield said. But the state is also rolling out satellite locations and mobile clinics to serve teachers whose intermediate units cover wide geographic areas. 

“This is all being done to bring the vaccine to the individuals and make it as convenient as possible for them to get vaccinated,” Padfield said.

What about child care workers?

People who work in day care centers and other child care facilities are also getting early access to Johnson & Johnson vaccines. These 30,000 doses will come from a separate vaccine supply stream being distributed through a federal partnership with Rite Aid, Topco and Walmart pharmacies

These shots will be administered at retail pharmacies instead of mass vaccination sites.

Starting Thursday, child care workers will be contacted directly by pharmacy staffers to schedule vaccinations, Beam said. 

I work in a school – can I sign up for a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine instead?

Pennsylvania’s effort to vaccinate teachers is separate from its general vaccine rollout, which is currently in its first phase. Current guidelines for that rollout allow healthcare workers, senior citizens, and people with certain preexisting health conditions to sign up to receive the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.  

Some school employees may be eligible under those criteria to register for the state’s phased vaccine rollout. But state officials are encouraging them to seek out the Johnson & Johnson shots, since they’ll face less competition signing up for appointments. 

The state’s supply of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines remains extremely limited relative to the number of people eligible to claim them, Beam said Thursday.

The one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot is slightly less effective than the other models in preventing new COVID-19 cases. But clinical trials show it’s just as effective at preventing the most severe cases, including those that result in hospitalizations and death. 

“I want to urge Pennsylvanians that they should receive the first dose offered to them,” Beam said. “I also want to reiterate that each of these vaccines, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are very effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.”

How will this affect schools?

When the current school year started in August, state education officials largely left it up to the Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts to decide how to reopen their doors to students. Some haven’t allowed children in classrooms all year long; others have reopened full-time or part-time while offering remote work and learning options. 

District leaders will still be calling the shots as they decide how to open classrooms once their employees are vaccinated. But state officials have been clear this week: this vaccinations effort is aimed at getting children and educators back in classrooms.

Echoing the current stance of the federal Centers for Disease and Control prevention, state officials said Thursday that “access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.” 

The Department of Education is expected to release updated guidance soon to help schools plan for reopening with vaccinated employees. 

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose to achieve its full efficacy. Patients will reap full immunity benefits two weeks after getting their shot, which should allow many educators to return to classrooms by the end of March, Wolf said Wednesday. 

Even after teachers are vaccinated, it’ll still be important for Pennsylvanians to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing, Wolf said. 

“It’s important that we continue to wear masks and continue to practice social distancing at schools, wherever possible,” Wolf said. “Even after teachers and school employees have been vaccinated these things will remain important.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.