Andrew Maxsimic, a computer technology teacher at Brewer High School, helps a student in late January. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine teachers and school employees will have to wait several more weeks before they can get vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the state’s top health official.

The state is directing its limited vaccine supply toward older Mainers and those with chronic health conditions right now instead of frontline workers who interact with the public, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah told members of the state’s teachers’ union in a Tuesday night meeting.

“By the time we are able to have sufficient supply to vaccinate groups like yourselves, teachers, it may be a while,” Shah said during the Maine Education Association meeting. “It may be several weeks, if not even longer than that.”

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommended putting school employees, postal workers, grocery store employees and other frontline workers in phase 1b of vaccinations, which Maine started this month.

However, the state has not decided whether teachers, food service workers, school bus drivers and other employees who interact with students regularly are considered critical frontline workers under Maine’s vaccination plan, said Bethany Beausang, a senior policy adviser to Gov. Janet Mills. As of early February, only older Mainers — those 70 and older — qualify for vaccination in phase 1b.

As of Tuesday morning, 57,000 older Mainers had received their first dose, and about 193,000 people were still waiting for theirs, Shah said. That means about 30 percent of the state’s 70-and-older population has been vaccinated, he said.

Maine is now receiving about 21,000 doses per week, which it is directing toward older Mainers. After that age group is vaccinated, people who have chronic medical conditions will be next in line.

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“If you focus on where the governor has chosen to, you save more lives,” Shah said. “Unfortunately, that means that the other approach is something that we’re not focused on as much right now, because we don’t have the supply.”

Another reason the state hasn’t yet prioritized teachers is because schools have been proven to be safer than the communities where they’re located. Over the last 30 days, Maine schools have recorded 34 COVID-19 cases per 10,000 students while the state overall has seen 116 cases for every 10,000 residents, according to Beausang.

The required use of masks and social distancing have reduced the spread of COVID-19 within schools, preventing outbreaks. Epidemiological investigations found that even when multiple cases have been detected in schools, it’s generally because transmission occurred outside school, Shah said.

Schools will have to continue taking those precautions for the next few months and possibly into the beginning of the next school year, Shah said, especially as the vaccination timeline remains unclear.

Some safety measures, such as rigorous disinfection of surfaces, have turned out to not be as important as the state previously thought, based on new research, Shah said. But others, such as adequate ventilation, remain equally important for preventing the spread of the virus inside schools, even during the winter months.

The state is not yet considering a requirement that people wear two masks even as new coronavirus variants that spread more easily become widespread because of a lack of studies supporting the benefits of double-masking, Shah said. Still, he said, it’s not a bad idea.

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