Teachers and school staff will soon be able to make appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations, as will Oklahomans of all ages with comorbidities.
“We have the sixth-highest percentage of all the states with people with at least one dose in the country,” Gov. Kevin Stitt said as he announced he would soon move Oklahoma to the next priority group within its distribution plan.
Pre-K-12 school staff who are not classified as teachers, such as bus drivers, will be covered due to their high-risk positions; about 89,000 individuals are estimated to be eligible in this category.
“We are one step closer to giving every parent in the state the option to send their kids back to the classroom,” Stitt said.
Appointments will open Feb. 22 for those next high-risk priority groups, Health Commissioner Lance Frye said
“We’ve made significant progress in vaccinating Oklahomans over 65; we feel it is the right time to begin vaccinating more of our at-risk population,” he said.
The comorbidities, or medical conditions that denote high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, include hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic lung, liver and renal disease.
Those in previous priority groups may still make appointments through the state portal, said Keith Reed, deputy health commissioner. He noted Oklahoma officials chose this “overlapping approach” intentionally.
“This ensures we maintain proper momentum while accounting for the difficulty in predicting uptake rates and possible vaccine hesitancy,” Reed said.
Reed said more pandemic providers have been added in the past couple of weeks, including nearly 80 pharmacy sites. He said that expanding capability to administer vaccines helped precipitate moving into the next priority group.
“Even if you’re eligible, it may take some time to get an appointment,” Reed said, noting supplies of COVID-19 vaccines are still limited.
Documentation on comorbidities would not generally be required at vaccination sites, officials said. Oklahomans in this group are encouraged to register at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov in the coming days.
“Be a good Oklahoman; make sure you’re answering these (registration) questions honestly” and not trying to move ahead in line of truly at-risk individuals, Reed said.
He said many in this group are best served by health care providers already established as points of access for COVID-19 vaccines, so the state will begin expanding its distribution efforts with those pandemic providers.
“Hospital systems, federally qualified health care centers, pharmacies, cancer centers and dialysis centers are excellent examples of access points that serve Oklahomans with comorbidities,” Reed said.
To vaccinate teachers and school staff efficiently, Reed said groundwork has begun with districts to ensure a localized-needs approach.
“Based on this information, the team will determine optimal locations to set up pods (points of distribution) in counties across the state. Starting the week of Feb. 22, we will be focusing select resources on these predetermined locations,” he said of a planned two- or three-week effort.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister issued a statement in response to the announcement.
“Our teachers and support staff deserve and need to work in a safe and secure environment. Giving them this opportunity to receive the vaccine as soon as reasonably possible is critical. While in-person school is more dependent on COVID mitigation strategies such as masks and social distancing, ensuring the vaccination of teachers is vital to keeping school doors open,” she said.
Union Public Schools has been working from the start of 2020-21 to keep schools open as much as possible for in-person instruction through many staffing challenges caused by quarantines and isolation. District officials say they’ve been encouraging all employees to sign up on the state’s vaccine portal in anticipation of greater public access to the shots.
“This is great news to hear it is coming for teachers,” said district spokesman Chris Payne. “A large contingent of our teachers are very interested in getting the vaccine as soon as possible.”
In an emailed statement, Owasso Public Schools Superintendent Amy Fichtner welcomed the announcement.
“The opportunity to receive vaccines is providing optimism as we all work together to address COVID-19,” she said, pointing out her district was among those able to get vaccinations for 65-and-older staff.
Heath Miller is the band director at Memorial High School and chairman of its fine arts department. Noting the higher virus transmission risks of shared art supplies and music classes, he said teacher vaccine access is crucial in order to safely resume in-person instruction.
“For all the clamoring about how we want the kids back in person, no one wants them back in the building more than the teachers,” he said. “I don’t know a single teacher who got into this to sit in front of a computer. We’ve wanted to be back in person for almost a year…but the only way we can do it is if we’re either observing strict social distancing and masking or we’re vaccinating every teacher. In many cases, it’s not physically or financially possible to maintain the social distancing requirements, so we have to get people vaccinated.”
Oklahoma Education Association represents about 40,000 teachers across the state.
“Every teacher vaccinated represents a classroom full of students who can begin to go back to the business of learning unafraid. Vaccinating their teachers, coaches, bus drivers, cooks, and others is an important step toward normalcy,” OEA President Alicia Priest said in a statement.