State Covid-19 vaccine rollout affects Grady community

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Ava Smith

Georgia’s vaccine rollout plan has implications for healthcare workers in the APS community who have been vaccinated and for teachers who worry for their health as they return to their classrooms without having been inoculated.

Ava Smith

The coronavirus pandemic has entered a new stage, with a new administration in the White House and vaccines being distributed across the states. While many are feeling hopeful about the rollout plan, others are frustrated. 

Georgia’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout plan is currently in its first wave, which has three phases. Georgia is currently in Phase 1A which includes healthcare workers, long-term care facility staff, adults 65+ and their caregivers, law enforcement and fire departments. Phase 1B comprises of non-healthcare essential workers whose jobs ensure “the continuity of functions critical to public health, safety, economic and national security.” Phase 1C covers people ages 16-64 with underlying health conditions that increase the risk for contracting COVID-19. 

On Jan. 16, 2021, APS nurses, police officers and faculty over the age of 65 had the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

Grady’s on-site nurse, Wanda Taylor, was vaccinated and “didn’t even feel the needle stick.” In addition to getting vaccinated herself, Taylor also worked to draw up doses on-site before other nurses vaccinated people. According to Taylor, the operation was well-coordinated. 

“The event was well planned and, and it went off without any problems,” Taylor said. “One man particularly stopped me, and he said, ‘Everyone is so happy here. This is so nice. You are so pleasant.’ So, it was a pleasant experience and well organized.” 

Because the list of district employees eligible for the vaccine was limited, a large portion of the faculty remains unvaccinated, many of which are back teaching in school buildings, even if students have not returned face-to-face. 

Students in pre-Kindergarten through second grade returned to in-person learning on Jan. 25. Students in grades 3 through 5 returned to school on Feb. 8. There are also some special education students back. Those in grades 6 through 12 are scheduled to be phased in on Feb. 16. Some teachers are worried about the prospect of reopening before they are vaccinated. 

“We are so close to vaccination,” Advanced Placement Literature teacher Susan Barber said. “It just seems like they waited to the peak of the crisis to bring us back;so, while I do desperately want to be back with my students and my colleagues … now is not the time to do this. My personal opinion is we need to wait until teachers are vaccinated and more people are vaccinated.”  

Government teacher Christopher Rhodenbaugh acknowledges virtual learning has been hard on families and understands the push to go back to school, but he is concerned that health and safety aren’t being prioritized. 

“Teachers need to be vaccinated before we’re back in a school building with Covid spread numbers what they are right now,” Rhodenbaugh said. “That’s my strongest feeling … you can’t say that health and safety is a top priority. It just isn’t …we’re not going to be vaccinated yet; we’re going to be in an unknown phase with this new variant and death rates.” 

Dr. Alex Isakov, a professor of Emergency Medicine and the Executive Director of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR) at Emory University, has been working over the last several months to “put the best safety precautions and safety measures in place so that people that need to get work done can get work done.” While not working directly in the vaccine administration, he is very familiar with the vaccine rollout plans. 

“We have to honor the concerns of the teachers and staff because these are real concerns,” Isakov said.  “Covid-19 can be a terrible disease for a lot of people, and clearly trying to have an environment where the faculty and staff are safe, as well as the students being safe, is important.” 

Taylor believes that whether teachers should be vaccinated before returning isn’t as relevant because of the current rollout plan. 

“That really is a moot conversation because it’s not; it was not feasible,” said Taylor. “The vaccine distribution did not allow for that to happen. So, it really is a moot point.”

AP English Language teacher Lisa Willoughby thinks that waiting to reopen until all faculty have been vaccinated would “be better.” But, even if Willoughby were to get vaccinated, she still would not likely return to in-person school because she is immune-compromised. But, she remains hopeful for the future. 

“While that [95 percent vaccine effectiveness] is good for the vast majority of people, with my immuno-compromised sort of situation, that’s still not ideal and still not a situation I’m excited to take advantage of,” Willoughby said. “I feel like, by the beginning of next fall, there will be sufficient herd immunity that I’ll feel comfortable being at school.” 

Dr. Jennifer Gilligan, an endocrinologist at Piedmont Physicians Group who has been vaccinated herself, is a Grady parent and recognizes the difficult decisions facing APS. 

“I think it’s a hard choice, no matter which way the decision is made,” Dr. Gilligan said. “Because certainly, we could all stay home …, but so many things are missing when we’re staying at home and people are being harmed. Children are being harmed in some ways by lacking the interaction with each other and having the full school experience that they are accustomed to.” 

Almost 5,000 teachers across Georgia have signed a circulating petition urging Gov. Brian Kemp to make vaccines available to teachers. The state has not made any changes to its current rollout plan and the Department of Health recently suspended Covid-19 vaccinations to the Medical Center of Elberton, a rural medical facility that had been vaccinating teachers in the area. 

On Feb. 4, in a letter responding to a resolution unanimously passed by the APS Board of Education requesting Kemp to release vaccines to educators and district staff, Kemp wrote that while he “would like nothing more than to vaccinate all of them tomorrow” the lack of vaccines supplied by the federal government to the State of Georgia does not make that possible. However, he said despite this, due to recent data and the resources APS has been allotted (including $112 million in CARES Act funding) he regards it safe to re-open APS schools. He also urged APS to continue to reopen, writing, “Our students cannot wait to go back to school. They have waited long enough.” 

“It is my belief that the Atlanta School Board can move forward – safely – with in-person learning as we await more vaccine supply,” Kemp said. “Dozens of school districts across our state have done so since last fall before any vaccine was first available to Georgians.” 

“We are all public servants,” APS Board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown said. “And we are all doing the best job we can to serve our constituents and I did not feel that his response acknowledged that.”

Board members, such as Bricoe Brown and APS Board Chair, Jason Esteves, were frustrated by Kemp’s response but also say that even beyond vaccines, support from the state has been lacking. As Esteves explains, if the state had prioritized public education when deciding which business and institutions should remain open.

“I think that’s the missing piece that we have seen in other countries that we have not seen in the United States,” Esteves said. “It’s the focus on public education during this pandemic…Public health experts have said, ‘schools should be the last to close and the first to open’. In Georgia, it was the exact opposite. In Georgia, we opened barbershops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys first.” 

Additionally, APS has had to completely foot the bill for some mitigation strategies such as the newly implemented surveillance testing system. 

Because in-person learning has already resumed in elementary schools across APS, and teachers are not expected to be inoculated until the next phase of the vaccine rollout, the district’s focus is on other preventative measures. Isakov refers to these measures as the “3 Ws:” wash your hands, wear your mask and watch your distance. According to a CDC study published on Jan. 27, preventive measures such as these have helped limit the transmission of Covid-19 in schools. 

Dr. Isakov stresses that these preventative measures are still important for people to adhere to even if they have been vaccinated, mostly because while the vaccine prevents people from getting sick, it is not known how effectively it prevents transmission of the disease. 

“You might not be sick enough to even feel like you’re ill where you need to go to the hospital, but the risk of transmission might still be there,” Dr. Isakov said. “I think people, in part, have this understanding that once they’re vaccinated, life goes back to normal. But you have to keep all those prevention measures in place.”

Both Drs. Gilligan and Isakov emphasize the safety and performance of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

“I think the secret to this is twofold,” Isakov said. “We’ve got to have people … able to answer people’s questions transparently. We need to be able to convincingly tell people that the research that’s been done on these vaccines is satisfactory … And then we just need to get this course of people that can reach different communities, and get people comfortable about the safety and effectiveness of this vaccine.” 

Dr. Gilligan emphasized that people who have the opportunity to get vaccinated should, because as Isakov said, widespread vaccination and herd immunity is the only way to get “sort of back to normal, the way we’d like it to be.” 

“I would just say that you know it’s a responsibility of all of us to get vaccinated unless there’s a specific reason why we can’t,” Dr. Gilligan said. “We’re all in this together; so, at the end of the day, we all need to help each other get out of it by all being willing to take the vaccine.” 

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