Palm Beach Post | Jane Musgrave | March 15, 2021
When Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all schools in the state to offer in-person instruction, powerful teachers unions sued, claiming it wasn’t safe to force their members to return to the classroom during the pandemic.
However, over the weekend, when given a chance to get vaccinated, only 1,873 of the estimated 9,000 eligible school employees in Palm Beach County lined up to get the 5,000 shots that had been set aside for them, school officials said.
Justin Katz, president of the county’s Classroom Teachers Association, suggested that many workers didn’t have time to prepare.
The announcement that one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines would be available at four schools on Saturday and Sunday wasn’t made until Friday morning.
Further, while shots were available to any school employee age 50 and up, those with chronic health conditions of any age were also eligible. Some may have had difficulty getting mandatory notes from their doctors, explaining why they are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, Katz said.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the county’s state-run health department, said she wasn’t surprised so few showed up. When a special clinic was held for school employees age 65 and over last month, only 250 of the estimated 1,500 who were eligible expressed interest.
“We expected that,” she said of the low turnout that stands in stark contrast to the frenzy that has surrounded the vaccine rollout. “Since we had already vaccinated the 65 and older, it only left a small window to vaccinate.”
Further, others said, since school employees of all ages are eligible to get vaccinated at Publix, CVS, Walgreens and other locations that are participating in the federal pharmacy program, it is likely many had already gotten shots. Those participating in the federal program have more liberal eligibility requirements for school workers than sites run by the state.
While not questioning the motives of school employees, some described the low turnout as a missed opportunity.
Sandra Del Tiempo said a friend who works for the school district told her that since few employees were showing up, there might be a chance for her to get a shot.
The 58-year-old Wellington woman said she waited alongside about 75 others outside John I. Leonard High School on Sunday afternoon only to be told the unused vaccines would be boxed up and taken away.
“Why?” Del Tiempo asked. “Why send them back and start over?”
Most of those in line were just slightly too young to meet eligibility requirements, she said. Some were educators under 50. Others, like her, were within several years of meeting age requirements, which dropped to 60 and up on Monday.
There was no chance of people flooding the high school parking lot, demanding to be vaccinated. That happened at a clinic in Miami this month when word got out that it was vaccinating all-comers.
In this case, it was the end of the day and those running the clinic were closing up shop, Del Tiempo said.
State health officials, who ran the special weekend clinics, couldn’t be reached for comment about why they didn’t offer the vaccines to others. They have previously said they have to follow the rules established by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But, Del Tiempo said, the goal should be simple. “The faster we can get people vaccinated, the faster we can stop the spread of the variants,” she said.
And, according to a recent report from the Florida Department of Health, highly contagious versions of the virus, particularly the one labeled the British variant, are spreading rapidly in Florida.
There have been 753 cases reported statewide, a nearly 25% increase from the 605 recorded on March 1. And, because special testing is required to detect the variants, the actual number is likely “double or triple” the known cases, Alonso has said.
With 69 cases, Palm Beach County has the third highest concentration of the more contagious versions of the virus. Broward County is home to the most cases with 283, followed by Miami-Dade County with 108.
People of all ages have been infected with the most cases detected among those between the ages of 15 to 34. Overall, 33 have been hospitalized and five have died.
Though Alonso cheered figures that show the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have dropped in recent weeks, she has said she worries about the impact of the emerging variants. That’s why she said it was important to have as many people vaccinated as possible.
With the help of school district officials, she helped set up the weekend clinic for teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, guidance counselors and other school employees age 50 and up. The 5,000 vaccines came from the 12,000 Johnson & Johnson shots her agency received from the state.
Now, she said, she is figuring out how to get the state to return the more than 3,000 shots that weren’t used.
“I want our vaccine back,” she said.