Georgia teachers, school staffers, others to join vaccine pool in March

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday that the roughly 450,000 educators and school staffers in Georgia will join the pool of those eligible for vaccines on March 8, along with adults with intellectual disabilities and parents of children with “complex medical conditions.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday that the roughly 450,000 educators and school staffers in Georgia will join the pool of those eligible for vaccines on March 8, along with adults with intellectual disabilities and parents of children with “complex medical conditions.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Hundreds of thousands of Georgia teachers and school employees, along with a group of other vulnerable residents, will be eligible for coronavirus vaccinations in early March under a plan Gov. Brian Kemp outlined Thursday.

After weeks of pressure from frustrated parents and teacher groups, Kemp announced that the state’s roughly 450,000 educators and school staffers will join the pool of those eligible for vaccines on March 8, along with adults with intellectual disabilities and parents of children with “complex medical conditions.”

Kemp tied the expansion, which officials said will add an estimated 1 million more people to the vaccine pool, to a call to resume in-person classes in school districts that haven’t reopened their doors to students.

“Our children cannot afford to wait until the fall. The costs are simply too high,” Kemp said. “Georgians deserve to return to normal as soon as possible, and that will not happen without schoolhouse doors open for face-to-face instruction each and every day.”

The governor and state health officials have been reluctant to move teachers up in the line, saying the scarce supply of vaccines has already made it difficult enough to inoculate Georgians who are 65 and older, plus other high-risk residents.

But after a partial state survey suggesting tepid demand for vaccines from educators, as well as a slight increase in the state’s supply of vaccines, Kemp said Georgia is now prepared to significantly expand the pool.

Carly Shaw, who teaches physical science to eighth graders in Fulton County, said teachers “were tired of waiting.”

“We’re in the schools, we’re on the front lines, we want to be vaccinated,” said Shaw, president of the Fulton County Association of Educators.

Shaw added that she’s glad Fulton Superintendent Mike Looney was among a group of metro Atlanta school chiefs who fought to move teachers higher up in the vaccination protocol.

ExploreCOVID-19 vaccination rates for Georgia counties

‘Very careful’

The governor has faced tremendous backlash from teachers and parents angry that most educators have yet to receive vaccines in Georgia, upset at Kemp’s decision to move people age 65 and older from the third inoculation phase to the first, leapfrogging teachers in “Phase 1b” who were next in line.

Metro Atlanta school systems demanded that he prioritize teacher vaccinations, as have Democrats and other critics who noted that at least 28 other states have made some or all teachers eligible for the vaccine.

While most school districts have resumed in-person learning, the governor has expressed increasing frustration at public school systems that haven’t yet returned. He urged administrators not to use the vaccine rollout as a pretext to keep doors shuttered until teachers are inoculated.

“I’m not ordering schools to open, but I believe now with this other tool, there should be no reason for us not to get kids back into the classroom,” Kemp said. “It would be a disaster, in my opinion, if we wait for some systems” to refuse to return until late summer or the next school year.

The state already allows those who are 65 and older and their caregivers, first responders, health care workers, and staffers and residents of long-term care facilities to receive the vaccine. About 57% of older Georgians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Kemp said.

Under the new state protocol, educators and staff at k-12 schools are eligible, including those who work in preschools and day cares. Officials will develop guidelines to define the medical conditions listed in the expansion.

It does not yet encompass other “medically fragile” Georgians, though the governor indicated they would be included in the next expansion.

New coronavirus guidelines released by the Georgia Department of Public Health.
New coronavirus guidelines released by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Credit: Staff

Credit: Staff

School districts across Georgia have prepared for months to vaccinate their staffs. Some want to open their own clinics to administer doses of the vaccine on campus; others hope to partner with local health departments and pharmacies.

Teacher groups welcomed the news as long overdue even as they pushed state officials to hone a plan to quickly inoculate educators and school staff.

“It is essential that Gov. Kemp provide an effective distribution plan for this rollout, and many school districts have requested to serve as vaccination sites,” said Craig Harper, the executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents thousands of teachers.

State Sen. Michelle Au, a physician and Johns Creek Democrat, said she was optimistic that the state supply of the vaccine would increase even as health care officials ramp up efforts to persuade vulnerable Georgians to accept the treatment.

“If we’re very careful and deliberate about how we communicate the importance and safety of vaccines, hopefully we’ll chip away at the people who haven’t taken it yet, maybe at the same time as our availability goes up,” Au said.

More demand than supply

The governor said his decision to expand the pool was eased by a state Department of Education survey last week that found 45% of educators would choose to take the vaccine, saying there wasn’t as much demand as he expected.

But Daniel Sobczak, a high school social studies teacher in DeKalb County, said he was excited about becoming eligible, especially now that students in his school system will start returning for in-person learning on March 9.

“As a person with underlying conditions, it scares me that we would be back in that type of situation without having had an opportunity to get vaccinated,” said Sobczak, vice president of the Organization of DeKalb Educators.

The success of the vaccination plan also hinges on hopes that the state’s allotment of vaccines will continue to rise. Georgia now receives about 215,000 first doses of vaccine a week, up from about 150,000 earlier this month.

Georgia officials are also hopeful that the one-shot coronavirus vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson, expected to soon be approved by federal regulators, will add another boost to the state stockpile in the weeks ahead.

Still, demand far outstrips supply, and many eligible for the vaccine have been unable to find appointments for months. On Monday, Georgia opened four mass vaccination sites in Albany, Clarkesville, Macon and metro Atlanta to dispense thousands of doses of vaccines each day, and many of the slots were snapped up quickly.

Overall, Georgia has administered nearly 1.9 million vaccinations. The state has the fifth-lowest vaccination rate among all states per 100,000 residents, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, and has consistently ranked near the bottom nationally in vaccination rates.

Officials are scrambling to inoculate as much of the population as possible before more contagious strains of the virus take hold. They are particularly worried about Georgians over 60, who Kemp said account for 85% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

Throughout a news conference at the Capitol, the governor urged Georgians eager for inoculations to be patient as the state awaits more vaccinations.

“We will continue to see more demand than we have supply,” he said.

Staff writers Eric Stirgus and Ty Tagami contributed to this article.

Georgia is now vaccinating:

  • Health care workers
  • Law enforcement
  • Fire personnel
  • Residents and staff of long-term care facilities
  • People 65 and older and their caregivers

The pool expands on March 8 to include:

  • Educators and school staff, including employees of preschools and day cares
  • Adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers
  • Parents of children with complex medical conditions

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