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NOLA Public Schools Will Work With Children’s Hospital To Get School Staff Vaccinated

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Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
A public school nurse receives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans. Jan. 12, 2021. ";

NOLA Public Schools will coordinate COVID-19 vaccines for all school-based staff as soon as doses become available, Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said Wednesday night.

Vaccination is “highly encouraged,” but not required of district employees.

“We're working with all public school entities just to make sure that we're all under the same umbrella and everybody has equal access,” Delcour said.

No one knows exactly when teachers will begin receiving the vaccine, but City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said the first doses could arrive in early February. She stressed the “fluid” nature of the situation and said “things will likely change.”

“As the states are getting [doses], they are pushing them out the doors, but they are not getting enough to meet demand,” Avegno said.

Louisiana has been constrained by vaccine availability, which is controlled by the federal government. More than 200,000 vaccine doses have already been administered in Louisiana, but many argue the state is not moving fast enough.

Avegno and Delcour addressed teachers at a virtual town hall co-hosted by the district, the City of New Orleans Health Department, and Children’s Hospital of New Orleans Wednesday night. All three entities are working together to distribute the vaccine to teachers and school support staff at the earliest possibility.

Louisiana is currently in Phase 1B, Tier 1 of its vaccine distribution plan. School nurses, other campus-based health professionals and staff members over the age of 70 are already eligible to receive the vaccine. Many have scheduled their vaccinations at Children’s Hospital through a partnership with the district.

Staff at K-12 schools and daycares are included in the next phase of distribution, along with several other classes of essential workers. The next phase of distribution likely won’t be greenlit until earlier phases are close to complete.

About 332,000 doses of the vaccine are needed to inoculate all of Louisiana’s K-12 school and childcare employees. The Department of Education estimates 166,000 people fall into this category, requiring two doses of the vaccine each.

“We don't know the exact date of when we're going to be able to start … but we want all the information we can possibly have so we can press go as soon as we are able,” Delcour said.

Wednesday’s town hall was framed as a space for educators to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine and for medical professionals to dispel myths and answer questions.

New Orleans teachers have expressed support for the vaccine and many have cited it as a factor that would make them feel more comfortable returning to the classroom.

Over the next two weeks, all school staff will receive a survey from NOLA-PS asking them whether they want to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. When the district reached out to school nurses to see if they wanted to get vaccinated, 60 percent registered right away.

“I want everyone to keep in mind that there's lots of people,” Children’s Hospital Chief Quality Officer Dr. Leron Finger said. “That means not everyone goes on day one.”

The survey will collect contact information from those who want to get vaccinated, that way hospital staff can start scheduling appointments as soon as they get the go-ahead from the state.

As of now local medical officials have not assigned priority to certain groups of school employees over others — except those already eligible for the vaccine.

“I'm not enthusiastic about trying to create another dozen categories within the NOLA public school community to triage,” Finger said. “As many health care organizations have already found, that creates a level of complexity that is not necessary at this stage in the pandemic.”

Finger expects most staff members will receive the vaccine at Children’s Hospital, but said they haven’t ruled out using a second site or mobile units. Right now Children’s Hospital is offering extended hours seven days a week.

“We're going to do whatever we can to vaccinate the highest number of people in a 24 hour period,” Finger said.

Panelists addressed some confusion around the distinction of “school staff” and stressed that all individuals responsible for school operations will be eligible for vaccination, not just classroom teachers.

This includes kitchen staff, custodians, bus drivers, school administrators, City Year and AmeriCorp staff, paraprofessionals, teacher aides and therapists, among others.

Vaccines will be provided at no cost and photo identification is not required. The vaccine is administered in two doses and hospital staff will follow up with individuals to make sure they return for their second dose either 21 or 28 days later.

Finger said the vaccine has been found safe and effective for the overwhelming majority of adults, including pregnant women. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concluded that pregnant women should not be excluded from vaccination.

Teachers expressed concerns regarding pre-existing conditions such as asthma, diabetes and allergies. Finger said there’s no evidence that the vaccine has made anyone’s chronic condition worse.

“Because of the mechanism of how this virus works, many researchers are confident that this is actually going to end up at the end of the day being one of the safest vaccines known to humankind,” Finger said. “It is absolutely the best chance of ending the pandemic. Not just here locally, but across the entire world.”

The only reason not to get the vaccine, Finger said, is if you have a pre-existing condition that prevents vaccination or if you’re allergic to an active ingredient in the vaccine itself. If you have tested positive for COVID-19, you should wait 90 days before getting the vaccine.

Another frequent question was about what happens after the vaccine and whether life can start to go back to normal. Finger cautioned that true immunity doesn’t kick in until three weeks after vaccination. Even then, other mitigation strategies must remain in place to ensure the virus doesn’t spread to others.

The vaccines are highly effective at protecting against COVID-19 symptoms, but researchers know far less about its impact on transmission.

“I have not done anything different now that I'm fully vaccinated. I haven't even hugged my parents,” Avegno said. “To protect my family, to protect my friends, I'm still wearing a mask. I'm still avoiding gatherings. I'm still staying 6 feet apart.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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