Teachers become eligible for COVID vaccines March 11
Move leaves other essential workers behind in vaccination line
AFTER WEEKS OF pressure from Massachusetts teachers — and one day after President Biden urged giving educators priority for vaccines — Gov. Charlie Baker said teachers, school staff, and early educators will be eligible to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines in Massachusetts beginning March 11.
But Baker warned that vaccine supplies will continue to be scarce, so appointments may be hard to get.
“People will get their vaccines, but people will need to be patient unless there’s a big change in available supply in the near future,” Baker said, speaking to the press on Wednesday morning after touring the West Parish Elementary School in Gloucester, which was celebrating 101 days of in-person learning this year.
Baker said he decided to make teachers eligible after Biden on Tuesday called on states to prioritize vaccinating teachers, with the goal of administering at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to all educators by the end of March.
But that’s exactly what today’s announcement does, and other essential workers – who have now been pushed back to make room for teachers — are taking notice.
Carmen’s Local 589, the union representing MBTA workers, on Wednesday complained that essential transit workers have not yet been allowed to be vaccinated. MBTA officials are planning to open a vaccination site in Quincy for public transit employees, but it has not opened. Jim Evers, president of Carmen’s Local 589, said in a statement, “The facts that the MBTA has the infrastructure set up to vaccinate its workforce, and that the governor appears to be holding them back, raise serious questions once again about his mismanagement of the vaccine rollout.”
Biden said he would use a federal partnership with pharmacies, in which the government sends vaccines directly to some CVS and Walgreens locations, to make the shots available to K-12 teachers and staff. By Wednesday morning, CVS had started listing teachers, early educators, and school staff as eligible to get the COVID vaccine in Massachusetts – although no locations had appointment slots available. Walgreens directed people to Massachusetts’s COVID eligibility website, which does not list teachers as eligible.
Baker said he was making teachers eligible to avoid confusion between state and federal eligibility standards. He did not directly answer when asked if a teacher could make an appointment at CVS this week, but said, “If someone can get an appointment, they should get an appointment.”
Teachers had always been in the next group scheduled to become eligible for vaccines under the state’s vaccine distribution plan, along with other essential workers. Baker’s announcement makes teachers eligible before the other essential workers, which include funeral directors, food service workers, grocery store and retail workers, transit workers, sanitation workers, court employees, and others.
Baker, who has been a strong proponent of reopening schools, had been coming under intense pressure to let teachers get vaccinations.
After Biden’s announcement, the Massachusetts Teachers Association on Tuesday urged Baker to make educators immediately eligible for the shots. Senate President Karen Spilka issued a statement calling on Baker to launch an “aggressive” vaccine program for teachers this month, and to reserve a percentage of vaccine doses as they come in for teachers and school staff.
According to Education Week, 34 states and Washington, DC, were letting teachers get the vaccine as of March 1.
But Baker defended his decision to hold off on opening eligibility to teachers. Until now, Massachusetts has been vaccinating health care workers, people living in group settings like nursing homes and prisons, residents age 65 and up, and those with two or more medical conditions that put them at risk of more serious complications from coronavirus.
Baker reiterated that older people are at higher risk of hospitalization and death. So far, only one-third of people in latest eligible group –– 65 and up or with two medical conditions –– have been vaccinated. “Those folks are far more vulnerable than anyone else,” Baker said. “They need to be vaccinated as quickly and as soon as possible to prevent serious illness and death.”
Teachers, school staff, and early educators will be allowed to make appointments when more appointments are released on Thursday, March 11. Baker said there will be certain days set aside for educators – possibly on weekends – at the state’s mass vaccination sites.
But Baker stressed that the constraint remains a lack of supply from the federal government. He said Massachusetts has been able to get six doses, rather than five, out of Pfizer’s vaccine vials which has boosted available doses to 150,000 a week. But there are 400,000 educators scheduled to become eligible for vaccines March 11.
Since many of those who are already eligible have not yet gotten their shots, that will bring the total pool of people eligible to be vaccinated to around 1 million. Baker said it will likely take about a month for all those eligible people to secure appointments for their first shot.
The FDA approval of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine was expected to significantly increase the country’s ability to vaccinate. But the company has so far manufactured only 4 million doses, and it is not expected to produce any more doses until the end of March, at which point the company has said it anticipates shipping out another 16 million.
Merck and Johnson & Johnson, which are typically competitors, announced Tuesday that Merck will begin manufacturing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is expected to greatly boost supply. Biden suggested the country will have enough doses available for all US adults to get a first shot by the end of May. But it will take time to ramp up the manufacturing.
Baker said Massachusetts received 58,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, which are being given primarily to hospitals and health care providers to distribute. But the state does not expect to get any more doses until the end of March or the beginning of April.
“The message governors got yesterday (from the federal government) is we shouldn’t expect a significant increase in supply until the end of March,” Baker said. “Therefore, it will probably take a while for all the folks who are part of this eligibility group to work their way through the system.”So far, Massachusetts has administered 1.8 million shots, of which 1.2 million were first doses.
As vaccinations are ramping up, the governors of Texas and Mississippi have announced that they are rolling back their state’s mask mandates. Baker said he has no intention of following suit. “The mask mandate has been an important element in both encouraging behavior but also sending a message about the importance of recognizing and understanding that COVID is still very much with us and people need to take precautions,” Baker said. “We have no plans at this point in time to change the rule with respect to the mask mandate.”