New guidelines unveiled by Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday open the door for teachers and other staff at public schools, as well as certain public safety officials and corrections staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine. At the same time, Vermonters with certain high-risk medical conditions will also become eligible for a shot starting next week.
The announcement came just hours before President Joe Biden told the nation the U.S. will have enough vaccines to cover all adults by the end of May and said teachers and school staff should be prioritized.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld, who has been following these developments. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: The governor has been taking some heat from the teachers' union for not prioritizing school staff in the vaccine rollout, up to this point. Why the change of course now?
Peter Hirschfeld: Well, Henry, Gov. Scott has been saying for months now that getting kids back into the classroom full time, five days a week is one of his singular priorities in this pandemic. And it was becoming increasingly clear that not vaccinating teachers and other school staff was going to be a major hurdle to making that happen.
The Vermont NEA said it's just not fair to ask teachers to expose themselves to these high exposure situations until they've been immunized against COVID-19. And today, what you saw was the governor saying, "OK, if vaccinating teachers is what it's going to take to get kids back in the classroom, then let's vaccinate our teachers."
I should also mention that childcare providers are going to be eligible for the vaccine starting next week under these new guidelines.
Shots in the arm of the 35,000 or so public school staff in Vermont is not the only thing standing in the way of in-person learning. Schools have said that abiding by social distancing, and other COVID protocols in some cases makes it impossible to fit all the students into the school building at the same time.
But Scott said today that the Agency of Education is going to be helping districts get "creative," as he put it. And he said the CDC is going to be announcing some new guidelines in the coming days that could allow schools to increase capacity.
OK, well, up until now, the Scott administration has said that the guiding principle for its vaccination program is to prioritize people who are at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19. And there are presumably lots of young and healthy teachers and public safety workers out there who don't fall into the high-risk category. So, is this sort of a departure from the administration's philosophy?
You know, it was really interesting. Administration officials would not explicitly acknowledge that departure, but I think a plain assessment of the situation has to conclude that the governor's calculus is evolving. You're right: a lot of teachers are super healthy 20-somethings whose statistical likelihood of dying from COVID is very small. And the goal in vaccinating all teachers and school staff is probably less about concerns over mortality rates in that particular cohort and more about fostering an environment that's going to be most conducive to in-person learning.
The governor, as you recall, held a really sobering press conference last week, where experts went into disturbing detail about the impact of virtual learning on kids' social and emotional well-being. And education officials have made it clear that vaccinations for people working in those school buildings are going to be a prerequisite for anything approaching a return to the pre-pandemic status quo.
[Gov.] Phil Scott feels like we're on the verge of long term and potentially irreparable damage to students as a result of this virtual learning protocol that we've been in, and he says vaccinations for school staff are going to help the state avoid that outcome.
Gov. Scott also said today that Vermonters with certain medical conditions will be able to sign up for vaccines now, regardless of their age. So which conditions fall into that category, and how many people will that actually affect?
So, people can and should go to the Vermont Department of Health website for a full list, but conditions include: people who currently have cancer, people with COPD — that includes emphysema. People with heart disease are eligible, people with chronic kidney disease, people with Type 1 and 2 diabetes, people who are pregnant, [and] also people who are severely obese.
I also want to note that the list was recently updated to include people with intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome. All told, the number of Vermonters with these conditions is not small. We're talking about 75,000 or so Vermonters who have one or more of these conditions who can start signing up for the vaccine next week.
OK, so a lot more people will soon be eligible. Finally, Pete, does the administration have any estimate right now of when the vaccine will be available to the general population?
You're asking for a friend, I'm sure. So, the secretary of Human Services, Mike Smith, said today that vaccine supply is projected to ramp up pretty significantly in the coming weeks. The arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week has really helped things. We could be getting 35,000 doses a week in Vermont by mid-April. And Gov. Phil Scott said if things proceed as planned, COVID-19 vaccines will be available to anyone who wants it, regardless of age or medical status by July or August.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.