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Teachers patiently wait as South Dakota vaccine rollout continues

Speed of vaccine distribution dictated by supply, health officials say

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Mrs. Katie Murphy takes a paper from one of her students during Spanish class on Tuesday afternoon at Mitchell High School. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The vaccination drive is underway.

Since the approval of several vaccines for the virus that causes COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease that has killed over a half-million people in the United States alone dating back to early 2020, states have begun distribution of the life-saving measure to various portions of the population.

That work began in January in South Dakota, with priority immunization scheduled for frontline healthcare workers and long-term care facility workers, closely followed by residents of those facilities. Also scheduled for January were EMS and public and other healthcare workers. The current phase of the rollout is prioritizing people 65 and over and high-risk patients.

But not teachers. At least not yet.

Waiting on the vaccine

“Hopefully, it will start sooner rather than later, hopefully before the middle of March,” said Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District.

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The South Dakota Department of Health has indicated the vaccination of teachers in South Dakota is currently slated to begin sometime in March , after persons with underlying medical conditions who are under the age of 65.

Despite schools in the state primarily remaining open with live, in-person classes during the 2020-21 school year , most teachers have yet to receive a vaccine shot. That is in contrast to some neighboring states, such as Minnesota, which began vaccinations of pre-K through 12th grade educators and child care workers in February. Nebraska has also scheduled educator vaccinations to begin in February.

Graves said he would love for teacher vaccinations to be underway already, but with the steady decline in new active COVID-19 cases across the state and zero cases reported in the school district in its latest case update, he is understanding about how vaccine distribution is being handled.

“Everyone is eager, but everyone knows that you have to wait your turn. It’s a patient eagerness,” Graves told the Mitchell Republic. “I’m in the same boat. I’d love to get vaccinated right now, but we all have to wait our turn. I think the timeline has been rational.”

Graves estimated that about 5% of the staff at the district has already received a dose of the vaccine due to falling into other priority groups. Some staff over the age of 65 have received doses, and many of the substitute teacher pool have been vaccinated, with many also being over the age of 65.

A few key positions at the school have also received a dose, Graves said.

“Our guidance counselors have been vaccinated. Our nurses have all been vaccinated and our occupational and speech therapists. So, we’re getting started,” Graves said.

South Dakota Department of Health stats show that probable and active cases of COVID-19 among staff and students within South Dakota K-12 schools are at their lowest since August of last year, with numbers peaking in mid-November. There have been 13,005 total cases of the disease in South Dakota schools with 12,730 recoveries. Of the cases, 9,577 were among students and 3,428 were among staff.

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Graves said he looked at the big picture when it comes to vaccine distribution and understands that vulnerable individuals need the vaccine due to risk factors.

“I get it. If you have people with multiple health issues, they should probably get it first, because it could kill them,” Graves said.

At the McCook Central School District in Salem, Superintendent Matt Alley said COVID-19 cases at the school were at low as teachers and staff awaited the eventual vaccinations.

“We have not had any cases recently, and to be honest, we’ve only had two active cases after winter break. It’s really been non-existent,” Alley said. “We are at 38 total cases this year between students and staff for the entire school year.”

Vaccinations have been as scarce as cases at the school so far this year, Alley said.

“To date, we have not had any of ours receive any vaccine as they haven’t fallen into one of the other categories, though we might have a few who receive it for age before they receive it for the teacher designation,” Alley said.

Like Graves, Alley said the steady drop in cases and hospitalizations in the state provides a boost of confidence in waiting a little longer for the important shots. Everyone who wants the vaccine wants it as soon as possible, but with such high demand, there is going to be some groups that have to wait, even important ones.

“Unfortunately, what (COVID-19) has taught us is that flexibility is a must. I understand. The whole country is trying to get access to vaccines, and we’re one of many places to get them,” Alley said. “Do we want them? Yes, you bet we do, but we also understand there are a lot of things they have to deal with.”

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As South Dakota teachers continue to wait, numbers indicate a steady rollout of the vaccine to other priority groups. Since vaccines were available in the state, the South Dakota Department of Health indicates 221,231 doses of the vaccine have been distributed to 144,585 individuals, which brings the percentage of the total state population to receive at least one dose to 25%.

Freeman Academy, a private K-12 school in Freeman, has also seen relatively low COVID-19 numbers, thanks in part to recommended mitigation techniques. Room misters and air purifiers have been installed at the school, masks are generally required and class spaces are spread out as much as possible.

Nathan Epp, head of the school, said the school made a brief move to remote learning near Thanksgiving break after a handful of positive cases and then took a planned switch to remote learning after Christmas break, but for the most part the numbers have been trending in the right direction.

And like other administrators, he’s ready to have his full staff vaccinated.

“Our goal throughout all of this has been to have mitigation strategies in place so that we can be in school in person. That is the most effective way to teach and learn, there’s no doubt about that,” Epp said. “We’re here in a pandemic setting and we have some older staff that have health issues and they’re putting themselves at risk.”

Some of the school staff have received vaccinations, perhaps as much as a third of it, due to some extra vaccine that was available locally unexpectedly and needed to be distributed quickly to a group that was ready to receive it.

And while educators are generally understanding about the wait, they are looking to get a vaccination when it becomes available.

“The majority of the comments I’ve received from those who have not had an opportunity to get it is the vast majority would get it when it becomes available. We leave it up to the teacher as a personal decision, a personal choice, but our staff is pretty sensitive to the fact that we are a community here, and as part of the community we bear a responsibility, and that’s part of the process.”

Laretta McPeek, a co-president with the Mitchell Education Association, said teachers in the Mitchell School District appear ready to get their shots when it becomes their turn.

“I think people are very anxious to get the shot so they can protect themselves. We’re very eager to get those vaccinations so that we are protected and are able to protect our students,” McPeek said. “But I would say teachers are great at being patient in trying times, so we are being patient in trying times. But we’re very eager to have that opportunity to get our vaccination.”

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Mrs. Katie Murphy goes over a sentence structure during Spanish class on Tuesday afternoon at Mitchell High School. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Getting more shots to the people

Health care officials in South Dakota say the primary factor in getting vaccines to South Dakotans quickly is the supply it receives from the federal government. Eric Larson, director of pharmacy who is also serving as area vaccine coordinator at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell, said the supply chain of vaccine sets the pace at which the different priority groups can be processed.

“We’re getting vaccines in people’s arms, we’re just limited by the number we can get each week,” Larson said.

Larson said the hospital receives about 300 to 400 doses meant for first new doses of the vaccine per week, with a similar amount coming in for second-dose shots. He said about 4,700 doses have been administered in local clinics, with about 3,000 of those being first doses and 1,700 being second doses.

“We’d like to be able to move that needle and get more first doses (administered) by getting more vaccine. We’re dealing with that as best we can. Right now, we’re accomplishing this with a vaccination clinic on Fridays that composes first and second doses,” Larson said. “As we get more, we’ll have to look at expanding to other days of the week.”

There is bound to be some backup as new groups are approved to receive the vaccine, he said. As members of the next approved priority group are allowed to begin registering to receive the shot, it may still be two or more weeks until an opening arrives for those patients, as members of the previous group finish making their way through the process.

“The state says we can go to this (population group), it means we can start scheduling those people, and people will start showing up on our list,” Larson said. “But it might be two or three or four weeks before we can get them into a clinic. What remedies that and allows us to get them in sooner is just getting more vaccine.”

While Larson said the March estimate to begin educator priority vaccines remains valid, he expects there could be a delay similar to what he’s seen in previous groups.

“Even when teachers are approved, that’s going to happen with them. When the teachers start, that means we can figure out what our scheduling is for them, but it’s going to be something that won’t happen for two or three weeks down the line because the clinics are still full from the previous group.”

Daniel Bucheli, communications director for the South Dakota Department of Health, agreed that the biggest factor in moving through the list of priority groups is the amount of available vaccine.

“South Dakota has been a leader in vaccination efforts, but the biggest challenge we have is allocation from the federal government,” Bucheli said.

Bucheli said the priority groups for vaccines were established based on particular risk factors for each group.

“We wanted to make sure the vaccine got to the frontline healthcare workers, those living in retirement homes, long term care residents, and obviously taking care of law enforcement and those 65 and older,” Bucheli said.

Bucheli said steps are coming to help vaccine supply issues, including the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination. The program is a collaboration between the federal government, states and territories and 21 national pharmacy partners and independent pharmacy networks to increase access to COVID-19 vaccination across the United States. This program is one component of the federal government’s strategy to expand access to vaccines for the public.

The program is being implemented incrementally based on the available vaccine supply, with select retail pharmacy locations providing COVID-19 vaccine to eligible individuals. As vaccine availability increases over time, the program will expand to ultimately include more than 40,000 pharmacies, according to the program website.

More supply also is expected with the pending arrival of a single-dose vaccine variant from Johnson & Johnson, which was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“That will increase the amount of access (to vaccines),” Bucheli said.

Based on those factors, he believes the March timeline for teacher vaccinations is still on track.

“That’s what the expected chart shows, and the more allocation we get, the quicker we push through the chart,” Bucheli said.

FILE PHOTO: Vials labelled "COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" and a syringe are seen in front of the Pfizer logo in this illustration
Vials labeled "COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine" and a syringe are seen in front of the Pfizer logo in this illustration taken Feb. 9. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Finding when you qualify

With the demand for the vaccine there, it’s just a matter of getting an adequate supply of doses and then getting people to sign up and come in for their shots. Bucheli encouraged those who want to know about where and when the vaccine will be available to them to utilize a web-based tool that will help them best identify which priority vaccination group they fall under in the vaccination plan. That tool and more information can be found at covid.sd.gov .

Larson said additional information on when and where vaccines may be available can be found at avera.org/covid-vaccine .

“We continue to innovate and make COVID-19 vaccination information easier to access for all South Dakotans,” Kim Malsam-Rysdon, secretary of health for South Dakota, said in a statement early in February. “By empowering South Dakotans with the latest information, we are ensuring residents can make the best health decisions for themselves and their families. Our numbers are trending in the right direction and we are working non-stop to get vaccines distributed and in arms statewide.”

Those down the list, including teachers, will be waiting when their turn comes around. For their own safety, the safety of their students and colleagues and maintaining the in-person format of learning that is most effective.

“I think we look forward to the opportunity to receive the vaccine. Getting back to normal is difficult until we have the vaccine,” Alley said. “We look forward to having that available. Not that people should or have to take it, but if it’s available as we transition to next year, that availability will dictate on how we are able to hold school in person.”

Related Topics: CORONAVIRUSCOVID-19 VACCINE
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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