Teachers begin receiving COVID-19 vaccine

MISSOULA COUNTY - Earlier in March, President Joe Biden sent out a federal order making teachers and school staff across the country eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. This allocation came at no hindrance to the vaccine supply that was already expected to be given out to Montanans who now qualify for Phase 1b plus of the distribution plan.

Seeley Lake Elementary School Superintendent Josh Gibbs said after Biden's announcement, the process of organizing a vaccination clinic at the school moved very quickly. On Tuesday, March 9 all SLE teachers, support staff, bus drivers and substitutes had access to the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine.

According to Gibbs, teachers and staff have been generally excited and relieved to have access to the vaccine. He is not aware of how much of the staff has received it so far. There are no current discussions of making the vaccination mandatory for SLE staff.

Gibbs said he appreciates Missoula County Superintendent Erin Lipkind, Granite Pharmacy Owner Eric Beyer and everyone else involved in organizing the clinic for their efforts.

Beyer said Granite Pharmacy has been helping organize vaccinations at schools across Missoula County. They have currently vaccinated over 1,200 Missoula County school employees and soon expect to hit 1,300. They have also vaccinated staff in Libby and Granite County. 

They have personally not seen much hesitation from staff to receive the vaccine but they have seen people say that it could not come fast enough. 

"Literally, we couldn't respond to schools fast enough and schedule them fast enough. That was their request," he said. "My staff was pretty amazing on what they did in such a short time to get that many vaccines out."

Beyer said in addition to the high demand of the vaccines, the short expiration period creates additional pressure to distribute them to as many people as possible.

"Once you mix them up or draw them into a syringe, you have a limited amount of time to use it and we're trying to limit waste," he said.

Potomac Elementary School Principal John Rouse said they were also given allocations of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. He said they gave out 25 shots Tuesday, March 9 with no issues. Staff who responded to a notification sent out by Rouse were sent a link where they could register and reserve a time slot. School volunteers and adult family members of staff were also offered the vaccine. Rouse estimates that 78% of school staff has been vaccinated as of March 11.

Hatton Littman, communications director for Missoula County Public Schools, said in Missoula they have organized three clinics and have vaccinated around 1,000 staff members. Staff were not prioritized on age or other medical categories because there were enough doses available to vaccinate everyone at the same time. A schedule was organized so teachers would not be out at the same time.

MCPS hopes to have 90% of their staff vaccinated in the near future. She describes employees as generally feeling "overjoyed, grateful and above all else relieved" to receive the vaccine.

Currently MCPS is not planning on requiring teachers and staff to be vaccinated although they will strongly encourage them to do so if possible. While state law (Montana Code Annotated 20-5-403) requires staff to have certain vaccinations like measles, rubella and whooping cough prior to attendance, there is no pending legislation Littman is aware of to add COVID-19 to the list. In addition, according to her even the mandatory vaccination requirements are subject to exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

"While we anticipate that there will be employees who choose not to get vaccinated, we hope that most will take advantage of this opportunity," she said in an email.

Cindy Farr, Missoula City-County Health Department COVID-19 response incident commander, said that vaccine announcements are made on short notice because allocations are unpredictable. 

"Our intention is to get [the vaccine] out to the public as soon as we receive it," she said in an email. "Sometimes that means that we find out that we are receiving a certain amount of [the] vaccine and we schedule a clinic the next day in order to distribute that vaccine. We are hopeful that our vaccine allocation will become more predictable in the future and that we will have open appointments every day."

Farr said she understands that some people may want to take the "watch and wait" approach before volunteering to get the vaccine. However, she advises those who are hesitant to get their information from reliable and trusted sources such as the Center for Disease Control. She recommends visiting https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety.html. 

"We understand that many Montanans believe in less government interference and some view the restrictions and public health recommendations as government interference," Farr said. "We just want to encourage everyone to follow the precautions, including vaccinations, so that we can get through the end of this pandemic and get our lives back to normal. Reaching herd immunity and suppressing the spread of the virus is what we will need in order to get to the end."

Beyer said he hopes that every staff member who wanted a vaccine was able to get one however if someone was not able to then he or she can reach out to a Granite Pharmacy location to see if they can get an appointment. Beginning April 1 anyone over the age of 16 can receive a Pfizer vaccine while anyone over 18 can receive a Johnson & Johnson or Moderna vaccine. To make an appointment visit https://covid19.missoula.co/VaccineInformation.


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