Kayleen Pieper, a kindergarten teacher on Maui, was so pleased to get inoculated against the coronavirus that she posted a smiling photo of herself with her vaccination card on Instagram captioned: “I’m so relieved.”
Pieper, who works at Kamali‘i Elementary in Kihei, was among the first teachers to get a COVID-19 vaccine, receiving her dose Jan. 8 through Maui Health for “my family and my kindergartners.”
Educators and child care workers across the islands are eligible for coronavirus vaccines as frontline essential workers, along with kupuna aged 75 and up, in the current Tier 1-B of the state’s distribution plan. But given supply shortages, Hawaii’s oldest residents have taken priority since they are most at risk from the disease.
School employees are just now getting their turn in larger numbers. So far, 18,200 Department of Education personnel have filled out an online form indicating they want to be vaccinated, and all those names have been passed on to the Department of Health, according to Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami. There are roughly 44,000 public school staff, including contract workers and casual hires.
The vaccine is voluntary. The DOH is sharing in batches the list of those willing to be vaccinated with medical providers who administer the vaccines. As of Friday 9,000 names had been submitted to providers, Unebasami said.
A number of private schools also have submitted their own lists of employees to the Health Department.
Rather than favoring one job category over another, the DOE included all personnel at the school level in its priority list, from classroom teachers to school bus drivers.
“It’s not just the teachers,” Unebasami said. “In order for the schools to operate and bring the kids back safely, we need our administrators, we need our cafeteria workers, we need our custodians — everyone who is working with children or facing the public.
“Crossing guards have the same priority as a teacher,” she added. “It’s one big team that opens up the school.”
State-level education personnel and those not dealing directly with the public are in a separate group with lower priority.
Medical providers and the DOH are driving the pace of vaccinations in Hawaii based on supplies from the federal government and need. They are reaching out to priority groups and inviting them to schedule appointments, as well as setting up delivery points, including a few at school campuses, in collaboration with education officials.
“We are happy to provide vaccinations to teachers who have been referred to us by DOH,” said Dr. Melinda Ashton, executive vice president and chief quality officer for Hawai’i Pacific Health, which encompasses Pali Momi, Straub, Kapiolani and Wilcox medical centers.
“While we don’t know the exact number of teachers who have made appointments, Hawai’i Pacific Health has already invited more than 6,500 of them to come to Pier 2 for their COVID-19 shots,” she said.
“Interest in vaccinations remains high, with lots of demand for appointments,” she added. “HPH will only open up appointments when we receive notification that the vaccine will be available to us. It’s been our experience that appointments fill quickly.”
The Health Department doesn’t tally vaccinations by job category. And medical privacy laws prevent the DOE from asking personnel whether they have been vaccinated. So it’s not clear what fraction of school staff in the state have been inoculated at this point.
Neighbor islands seem to have made more progress given their smaller populations. On Kauai, health officials found they had enough vaccine to cover kupuna as well as frontline workers. About 1,000 educators signed up to be vaccinated in the first two days, the county announced Jan. 12.
“Kauai is doing terrific,” said Brooks Baehr, a DOH spokesman. ‘They’ve got a smaller population, a more manageable situation, so they’ve been able to move quickly and deeper into Tier 1-B.”
On Hawaii island, district health officials staged a vaccination clinic at Keaau High School on Jan. 16, inoculating more than 600 education staff from the area. They will hold another Feb. 13, when school workers can get second doses. A separate vaccination clinic for education employees is scheduled for Feb. 6 at Kealakehe High School, on the other side of the island.
On Oahu, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center spearheaded a two-day vaccination drive at Waianae High School for educators in the area, with 549 people getting inoculated Thursday and a similar number expected Friday.
First-grade teacher Caroline Freudig, Kauai chapter president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said she and her colleagues were surprised and grateful to get a chance to be vaccinated Jan. 11 at Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall.
“The teachers were very excited about it happening so soon,” said Freudig, who will return for a second dose Feb. 8 at the next event.
Her school, Kalaheo Elementary, has been in blended learning since the second quarter, with students rotating time on campus.
“We all want everyone back,” she said. “Getting a vaccine will hopefully support the community in the long run to have a school year that starts in 2021-22 to be a five-day-a-week schedule.”
The challenge for the state, as well as the nation, is getting enough vaccine supply. Hawaii received about 32,000 doses last week, Baehr said.
“We all want more vaccines,” Baehr said. “We could easily administer twice as much as we have been if we could get sufficient doses allocated to us. There is no question about that. We have the capacity and we have the infrastructure to administer those vaccines.
“Teachers are very important to us,” he added. “We’ve got to get the kids educated. And parents need to be able to work.”
Kaiser Permanente Hawaii is still focused mainly on vaccinating people 75 and up, although its facilities handled some essential workers early on.
“When we thought vaccine supplies were going to be more stable, we did make appointments for some of the essential workers, and I believe some are still on our schedule,” said Laura Lott, Kaiser’s director of communications and public relations.
“As more vaccine becomes available, we’ll be able to open up vaccinations for more of the essential workers,” she said. “Right now we are not taking new appointments for essential workers because we are trying to take care of the people who already had one dose and need a second, and to take care of our kupuna.”
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee is encouraging members to get the vaccine whenever it’s available if it is medically appropriate for them.
“HSTA is optimistic that when educators receive the second of the two-step vaccinations currently available in the United States, that will open up opportunities to increase in-person learning options,” he said.
The state’s first tier for coronavirus vaccine distribution, 1-A, covered health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities, who together make up roughly 6% of the state population.
Phase 1-B covers frontline essential workers and people aged 75 and up, an estimated 20% of the population. Phase 1-C is for adults ages 65 to 74, people aged 16 to 64 with underlying conditions, and other essential workers. Phase 2 will cover anyone 16 years and up.
COVID-19 vaccines are not yet available for children under age 16 because they have not been adequately studied in that age group.
The DOE is keeping its online survey open so its personnel can continue to sign up for the vaccine at 808ne.ws/DOEvaxsurvey.