The state is laying the groundwork to quickly vaccinate school employees against the coronavirus when their turn comes in Washington’s distribution plan, thanks to a partnership with a major health care provider, officials said Friday.
Kaiser Permanente Washington, an insurance and health care provider, and the state superintendent’s office are currently developing the “Get Ready” plan, which would utilize 14 to 20 Kaiser locations — and potentially school sites in areas where there are none — to vaccinate teachers and school staff.
The “Get Ready” plan doesn’t change the place in the queue for educators. Vaccines are still only available largely based on a patient’s age, living conditions or status as a high-risk health care worker. But the plan potentially offers a way for school employees to evade long waits for a vaccine appointment, which so far has plagued the rollout effort in Washington.
Many of the details — such as how sites would verify that patients are indeed teachers or staff — are still being worked out. The effort would rely primarily on Kaiser health care providers to inject the vaccine. If there’s not enough staff, Kaiser will turn to other health care partners.
“This covers about 80% of school staff, and any school employee is welcome at any of one of our many vaccination sites,” said Susan Mullaney, president of Kaiser Permanente Washington. The state is not paying Kaiser for the effort.
The goal, said state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal, is to get all eligible teachers and staff vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible — he wants to prevent it from taking months. “It is another step in a long process that’s not over and will continue to require the diligence of Washingtonians to focus on the safety precautions,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal described the vaccine as a “safety net” and an additional safety protocol as schools begin to reopen. “We do not have to wait for vaccines … to open safely today if we follow the safety protocols, most specifically the face covering,” he said, adding that not everybody trusts the vaccine or can medically tolerate it, new variants might require people to receive a vaccine booster and that children will not be eligible for vaccines for many months. “It has no certainty of perfection.”
Kaiser members will be able to get the shot for free; others, Mullaney said, will be able to bill their insurance companies or the federal government for reimbursement.
Friday’s announcement may encourage some school districts to speed up their plans to bring students back to classrooms or lay the groundwork for bringing vaccinated employees back to work in person. As of the week of Jan. 18, only 22% of students statewide were receiving any in-person instruction, according to a state dashboard.
School staff ages 50 and up are expected to be eligible next, and many younger employees won’t be eligible until later this spring. State Department of Health officials clarified last week that providers should start with older employees but can vaccinate younger educators and school staff who work with students with health issues or in schools with high percentages of low-income students.
Of the 153,000 people who work in Washington public schools, about 63% are teachers or instructional assistants; about 40% of these people are over aged 50. By comparison, about 73% of employees who operate machinery, like bus drivers, are 50 or older. And nearly half of school nurses are in this age group — some of whom have already received either their first or second doses of the vaccine.
Officials say they expect the school-based clinics to launch between the next four and six weeks. Spokane Public Schools said Thursday that it plans to start vaccine clinics as early as Feb. 9.
“This effort will expedite vaccines when our time comes,” Reykdal said. “The goal here is to return to school safely. This underwrites existing practices that allow you … [to do that] today.”
The slow start to the state’s vaccine rollout spurred at least two teachers unions — Bellevue and Battle Ground — to stall or attempt to delay a return to classrooms.
A third union, the Issaquah Education Association, filed a complaint Thursday with King County Superior Court alleging the Issaquah School District violated a negotiated labor agreement when it announced plans to bring some elementary school students back to school buildings in February, and before coronavirus test positivity rates dropped below a certain threshold. By late Friday, the Washington Education Association released a statement which said that Issaquah’s union and district had reached a tentative agreement, but details were not immediately available.
This week, the Seattle Education Association bargaining team has been meeting with the district, which has signaled a potential March return.
Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday he had no immediate plans to move K-12 educators up on the vaccine priority list. But a spokesperson said Inslee was encouraged by the partnership between Reykdal’s office and Kaiser.
Shortly after the announcement, Washington Education Association president Larry Delaney issued a statement that reiterated the union’s call to get teachers vaccinated now.
Front-line health care workers who work in schools — school nurses — are already eligible to get vaccinated, though some have reported trouble securing appointments.
In Spokane, the school district’s director of health services said she herself delivered the first dose of vaccine to her staff. Many students in Spokane are attending school in-person; the district has logged about 194 coronavirus cases, including seven tied to transmission inside a school building.
“Even just thinking about it brings a tear to my eye just because as their supervisor it has felt awful,” said Rebecca Doughty. “They are exposing themselves [to the virus] out in the health rooms and they do it because they love the kids and they love the staff.”