Herbert: Utah teachers to be eligible for COVID vaccinations as soon as late December
Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that educators would be included in the first phase of COVID-19 vaccinations, indicating that some teachers could receive the first dose of a vaccine before New Year’s Day.
Educators in Park City met the announcement with enthusiasm.
“I applaud the decision to vaccinate teachers in the first wave,” said Park City Education Association Vice-President Aaron Webb, whose organization represents about 300 Park City educators. “Teachers are on the front lines of the pandemic every day. It truly affects every aspect of our work, so it is a relief to feel supported and valued by the governor in this way.”
The vaccination campaign is dependent on the Pfizer vaccine receiving emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration, which met on Thursday to discuss the application.
Herbert indicated the first doses would be shipped within 24 hours of the vaccine receiving approval, and a state vaccination official said his office was anticipating shipments the week of Dec. 13.
Federal officials are expected to evaluate a separate vaccine, manufactured by Moderna, later this month.
Herbert’s announcement came as state officials tried to encourage residents to redouble their COVID safety efforts, touting hopeful developments in the vaccine process and an apparent avoidance of a statewide post-Thanksgiving surge of COVID cases, indicating there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”
But Thursday was also the day officials announced that more than 1,000 Utahns had died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and that nearly 3,000 new cases were being reported daily.
Mass vaccination is seen as the key to achieving the herd immunity that will allow life to return to a semblance of normalcy, something state officials hope will happen next summer.
Thursday’s announcement was a welcome development for local school districts, which have enacted elaborate COVID safety protocols to try to keep students in schools.
“This is excellent news,” said Park City School District Superintendent Jill Gildea. “Every safeguard that can be provided in support of our educators is most welcomed!”
In his announcement Thursday, Herbert said that teachers have been on the front lines of the pandemic. The policy announcement elevates the profession to join the ranks of first responders and health care providers who will be among the very first in Utah to receive the vaccine.
Some Park City teachers for months have advocated for stricter COVID safety protocols, including moving to a hybrid schedule to allow for social distancing in the classroom. The Utah Education Association in early November called on school districts to move secondary schools to remote learning between Thanksgiving and the winter break to prevent a surge of COVID-19 from families gathering for the holidays.
State officials said Thursday the expected post-Thanksgiving surge had not materialized statewide, with the number of cases remaining nearly steady at around 2,800 per day.
The South Summit and North Summit school districts moved to remote learning for a period over the past month, while the Park City School District did not. Park City officials have said the number of cases of COVID-19 within the district has not warranted such a move, though they are prepared to take that step if necessary.
South Summit officials opted for a preemptive move to online learning for the weeks after Thanksgiving and winter breaks, while the North Summit High School remote learning period was implemented after case numbers there started to rise quickly.
On Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health updated its guidelines to shorten the quarantine period from 14 days to 10 days, matching recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students and educators may return to school after 10 days if they do not have symptoms of COVID-19, or seven days if they are asymptomatic and they procure a negative test.
Herbert indicated the decision to include teachers in the first phase of vaccinations was made to keep the state’s children in schools and continue to provide a safe academic environment. State officials have consistently said that students should learn in schools rather than online whenever it is safe to do so.
“We need students to learn but we need teachers to be able to teach and we’re trying to make sure we have as safe an environment for our students and our teachers as we can so they can continue to teach in class,” Herbert said. “This will help minimize disruption for families at home and we hope to minimize the ‘ping pong effect’ that’s happening with going to online or in-class or a combination of both, back and forth.”
Herbert said that teachers would be in the second wave of the first phase of vaccine dispersal, joining first responders and long-term care facility workers. The very first vaccines will go to workers at the hospitals that have been designated to receive patients with the most severe cases of COVID-19.
The Pfizer vaccine requires three weeks between doses, and CDC officials have indicated that people may not be immune from COVID-19 for weeks even after receiving the second dose.
On Thursday, the governor indicated he had been communicating with a high-ranking official in the federal vaccine effort, Operation Warp Speed’s Chief Operating Officer Gen. Gustave Perna, who committed to him that the state would receive 154,600 of the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of December and an equal amount of the second dose in January.
State officials have indicated they expected to receive additional allotments of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines throughout the spring, and that mass-vaccination campaigns could occur as early as late March.
Prior state estimates indicated Utah would receive around 350,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines by the end of the year, and Herbert did not elaborate on the discrepancy in numbers.
The largest teachers union in the state, the Utah Education Association, has said it has approximately 18,000 members.
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Park City School District is partnering with the Utah Department of Health to provide free rapid testing for COVID-19 to the entire Park City community.