Governor Hutchinson’s announcement that he was greenlighting COVID-19 vaccines for teachers starting Jan. 18 put school districts across the state in the hot seat. Lacking a top-down plan from the federal or state government, school districts in Arkansas have to vie for their own vaccine sources from the limited number of pharmacies and hospitals that have them. And confusion about how many vaccines will actually be available and when means districts are having to cancel or reschedule the shot clinics eager employees were banking on.
At the North Little Rock School District, for example, 521 of the district’s roughly 1,400 teachers and staff members signed up for clinics planned for Wednesday and Thursday of this week. “Unfortunately, we learned Tuesday that we would only be able to get a fraction of what we had requested,” district spokesman Dustin Barnes said. About 100 people on the list secured their first shots this week, but the rest will have to wait until the pharmacies can get a hold of more.
“We sent out the information to staff and apologized,” Barnes said. “It’s really out of our control.”
The addition of educators and people over 70 to the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility list touched off a new, more competitive phase in the great race to vaccinate. So far, in the North Little Rock School District and statewide, there are more losers than winners. Experts expect it will take up to four months to get all of Arkansas’s teachers and seniors vaccinated.
The Little Rock School District had better luck this week, delivering about 1,000 vaccines to teachers and staff, with more on-site clinics scheduled for next week. The district employs 3,200 people, and was keeping sign-ups for the COVID-19 vaccine open until midnight Friday.
This first week of teacher vaccinations went better than expected, said Ron Self, director of safety and security for LRSD. The governor’s announcement that he was making COVID shots available to teachers took him by surprise. “Everybody started scrambling because we thought we had until February to get something set up,” he said.
School nurses and administrators fanned out to find pharmacists for on-campus shot clinics. With no single pharmacy having enough shots for the whole district, LRSD enlisted Kroger, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Cornerstone Pharmacy on Rodney Parham and Don’s Pharmacy to put on shot clinics at campuses throughout the district starting Jan. 19.
Then some plans fell through. “On weekends is when pharmacists find out how many vaccines they’ll get,” Self said. The number he was expecting was cut by two-thirds, meaning clinics had to be shuffled and rescheduled. “We weren’t happy. Pharmacists weren’t happy,” Self said.
LRSD moved some clinics to next week, and they hope to get through the first round of the two-dose vaccine regimen for all teachers who want it by the end of January.
In the face of so much uncertainty, though, lots of the teachers are hedging their bets by calling around town in hopes of finding a spare dose to claim.
That was the case at a shot clinic at Horace Mann Middle School Friday, where 10 teachers signed up for a vaccine had already gotten their first shots elsewhere. COVID vaccines spoil quickly and have to be thrown away after 8 hours. It turned out not to be a problem, Self said. Demand among Little Rock teachers is high. “They weren’t extra for long. If you’ve got 10 extra you can make 10 phone calls and fill them. There’s no waste here.”
Pharmacist Brittany Marsh, owner of Cornerstone Pharmacy on Rodney Parham, said she’s eager to administer as many vaccines as she can, but all she can do is wait for new shipments and hope they’ll be enough. This week’s supply fell short of what she was hoping for.
“The hardest thing right now is we are sitting on go and we don’t have enough vaccines in the state to give,” she said. People are flooding her phone lines and website to sign up for vaccines, and she can’t help them yet. “Our hands are tied. It’s a waiting game on when we can get more vaccines from the federal government.”
Infectious disease expert Dr. Gary Wheeler, who retired last year from his post as senior medical advisor at the Arkansas Department of Health, continues to follow the COVID crisis closely. Wheeler said he doesn’t blame anyone in our state for the slow vaccine rollout. We’ve done well with the limited supplies on hand, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned that a significantly more contagious variant of COVID-19 could be the dominant strain of the virus spreading throughout the U.S. by March. Wheeler says he’s optimistic that Arkansas teachers who want it will likely have at least the first dose of vaccine before then. He’s also hopeful that federal money coming our way will cover the cost to revamp HVAC systems in schools to ensure the good ventilation proven to slow COVID’s spread.
Wheeler does worry about one particular element of the vaccine rollout that’s been evident from the very beginning. Access to the vaccine often depends on knowing the right people or having a fast internet connection. The people who are smart, wealthy or well-connected enough to get themselves to the front of the vaccine line are not necessarily in greatest need. As more vaccines arrive in Arkansas and become available to more groups, Wheeler suggests we try a lottery system to make sure vaccines are distributed equitably.
“There are a lot of consequences to the first-come-first-served approach,” Wheeler said. “It’s partly Darwinian, it’s partly favored status that allows you to get the vaccine. It’s who you know.”