'The sooner, the better:' School staff to begin accessing vaccines in Chatham

Posted 2/25/21

Last Friday, the Chatham County Public Health Department announced that school staff and childcare workers ages 50 and older will start getting vaccinated in Chatham on Friday.

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'The sooner, the better:' School staff to begin accessing vaccines in Chatham

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A small group of school staff and child care workers are set to get vaccinated for the first time in Chatham this Friday — and Alirio Estevez, 51, is one of them.

“I feel very happy. Enthusiastic,” said Estevez, an ESL teacher at Siler City Elementary School. He added: “There are some misgivings, some misinformation in the community, especially some people in the Latino community. ... So if I can get it at the school and they can see that teachers are getting it, they would be less reluctant to get the vaccine.”

Last Friday, the Chatham County Public Health Department announced that school staff and childcare workers ages 50 and older will start getting vaccinated in Chatham on Friday.

With nearly 1,000 individuals in the department’s database from the county’s school and childcare facilities, the release said about 400 of those people are age 50 or older.

“At the same time, we will continue to vaccinate healthcare workers and adults ages 65 and older,” said Mike Zelek, the CCPHD’s director. “Because of increases in our allocations from the state and more options to get the vaccine in Chatham, we do not anticipate the pace of vaccinations to these individuals will slow as we phase in this new group.”

The decision followed Cooper’s Feb. 10 announcement that the state would expand vaccine eligibility to Group 3, starting with educators and school personnel on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Other frontline workers are set to become eligible March 10. At the time, both state and local leaders stressed that vaccine eligibility did not guarantee vaccinations.

“Thousands of Chatham residents in these groups remain unvaccinated, and we are exhausting our weekly vaccine allocations to work through these groups as quickly as possible,” Zelek said earlier in February. “Vaccine supply continues to be the limiting factor, and it is unlikely that we will be able to move to Group 3 as soon as the group becomes eligible per this updated guidance from NCDHHS.”

But pending the arrival of scheduled allocations, the department said it would schedule appointments this week with the 400 or so individuals in the county’s Group 3 database who are 50 or older.

“We have been working closely with Chatham County Schools, public charter and private schools, and child care facilities for several weeks to prepare for these vaccinations,” Zelek said in a department news release. “Thanks to these relationships, we will be able to hit the ground running.”

‘We’re a little late’

In Chatham, most students can choose to attend some form of in-person hybrid learning. Chatham Charter is phasing into Plan A for K-5 students, CCS met Tuesday night to discuss potentially doing the same (ultimately voting no) and Woods Charter School will begin phasing into Plan B on March 15. County teachers and staff have previously expressed concern about teaching in-person prior to getting vaccinated, and while their views converge slightly, groups like the ABC Science Collaborative and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised that vaccines are not required for schools to open safely.

The rate of community transmission is a sticking point for many educators advocating for vaccine priority. Though the rate of transmission is lower in Chatham than in surrounding counties such as Durham or Randolph, the current spread is still higher than at many other points of the pandemic.

Johnny Alvarado, 52, teaches AP Spanish Literature at Jordan-Matthews High School. Like many other teachers, Alvarado told the News + Record he’s glad teachers can now get vaccinated in Chatham, but he wished the move had come sooner.

“It should have been six weeks ago when we started or when the students started coming back,” he told the News + Record in Spanish. “The sooner, the better, and it does seem to me that we’re a little late. I wish (school staff vaccinations) had started much earlier so that I could teach a little safer.”

He just registered to get vaccinated in Wake County Monday night, but he’d prefer to receive his shots in Chatham, since that’s where he works. And why does he want the vaccine?

“The vaccine protects you,” he said, adding, “I don’t believe in what anti-vaxxers believe. I’ve taken all the vaccines on the planet. It seems to me that science is preponderant, and if there is a vaccine, then I’m going to take it.”

‘This isn’t a panacea’

For Edward Walgate, a science teacher at Northwood High School, the update doesn’t mean too much given that he’s not 50. Still, he said he’s grateful the county is able to start with teacher vaccinations, particularly given the number of seniors 65 and older in Group 2.

“The teachers were happy that the governor has put us at the front of Group 3,” he said. “We appreciate that teachers worked hard and communicated our feelings with the governor to make that happen.”

Walgate was set to receive his vaccination in Lee County on Tuesday, where he and half dozen other coworkers were able to schedule appointments. He knows of others with appointments this week at Duke Health and in Hoke County.

“It seems like other counties were accepting some information from teachers and even scheduling appointments a lot earlier than Chatham,” he said. “But again, I think that gets down to, as Zelek said, the amount of senior citizens.”

The department is slated to receive 600 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine this week, the CCPHD’s release said, up from getting 400 doses the last few weeks. In addition to receiving the expected 600 doses, the department should also receive the 400 first doses delayed last week by the weather.

Once those allocations are received, vaccination events will be scheduled at the Chatham County Agriculture and Conference Center in Pittsboro. Planned events included in the release:

• Friday, Feb. 26: First doses for Groups 1 and 2 and school and childcare staff ages 50 and older

• Monday, March 1: First and second doses for Groups 1 and 2, and first doses for school and childcare staff ages 50 and older

Though some teachers are reluctant to take a vaccine, Walgate said beginning to vaccinate many school staff is one step toward feeling safer during in-person learning.

“As a teacher, we know that this isn’t a panacea — this isn’t a solution to the problem,” he said. “But it’ll make a lot of educators feel a lot better about being face-to-face with students. And for here at Northwood, we have roughly 700 people in the building together during a pandemic; vaccines will go some way to making educators and staff a little more comfortable.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan. Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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