Old Town Elementary fourth-grade teacher Kerri Dexter got her coronavirus vaccine through a mix of timing and luck.
The 50-year-old teacher was elated when Gov. Janet Mills opened up Maine’s vaccine eligibility to more than 52,000 K-12 education staff and child care workers in early March. But she did not have to wait for her district to schedule a clinic or wait on the phone to get an appointment.
Instead, on March 6, a leftover dose was available at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center, where she sometimes volunteers at Northern Light Health’s mass vaccination site. The newly eligible Dexter happened to be working that day and got her first shot.
“It was such a relief. Before the prioritization, it was like ‘The Hunger Games,’ and I never liked feeling like we were competing for prioritization,” she said.
Dexter’s story is just one of the myriad ways education staff are getting vaccinated after the state made an unusual carveout for the group on March 3 after a directive from President Joe Biden. Two weeks later, it is hard to say how many have been vaccinated, but some school districts are taking proactive steps to ensure staff have access to doses, while others are leaving it up to staff to seek immunization on their own.
Their prioritization has been different from other groups included in the first phase of the vaccination effort. Teachers’ unions lobbied hard for prioritization as states debated how to return to full-time in-person education, a debate that wasn’t as loud in Maine, where students have largely been able to attend class in person at least part-time.
The federal government directed participants in its retail pharmacy program — in Maine, that’s Walgreens, Hannaford and Walmart — to set aside unbooked vaccination slots for education staff through March 31. And the state told health care providers to plan one-time clinics for education staff over 60. But Maine also directed providers in a March 4 memo to not set aside doses specifically for teachers and child care workers going forward. They could simply book appointments along with others eligible for the vaccine.
Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state does not have data showing how many teachers have been vaccinated because they signed up directly with providers, and the state is not required to track teacher immunizations. Vaccine providers were assigned school districts based on geography; the number of willing, eligible school staff; and their own capacity, she said.
Maine’s two biggest health care systems — Brewer-based Northern Light Health and Portland-based MaineHealth — did not have broken-out data on how many school staff they had vaccinated because they’ve tracked teachers as they have other eligible people, according to spokespeople. Some employees may have already sought vaccinations on their own rather than going through their school districts.
Gorham School District Superintendent Heather Perry worked with the local fire department to get a clinic set up last Monday for the district’s employees aged 60 and older. She said another clinic for all staff is tentatively in the works for April 2. The idea is to get through as many staff as possible to avoid staffing challenges in the future, she said.
“When you get staff vaccinated in a ‘shotgun’ approach, you can’t plan for it,” Perry said, noting some staff might suffer adverse effects from the shots. Trying to get them vaccinated all at once allows the school to plan for a remote day in advance, she said.
In Bangor, the state’s third-largest school district was able to use its connections to the city health department. Patty Hamiliton, the city’s public health director, said the department held one clinic that catered mostly to school staff last Friday, with some older Mainers mixed in. Bangor School Department Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg said the district is aware of 314 staff who have been vaccinated so far.
Other school districts have relied on local health care providers’ clinics to get staff vaccinated.
Thad Lacasse, principal at the remote Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman, said some of his staff were able to be vaccinated when the North East Mobile Health paramedic group asked to set up a community clinic at the school on March 5. He alerted staff that the clinic was happening and said some were able to get one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Lacasse was not sure how many of the district’s roughly 35 staffers had been vaccinated, but figured many were covered by Penobscot Community Health Care’s local health center. Otherwise, staff would have to drive 70 miles to Skowhegan, he said.
“We were lucky,” Lacasse said. “I have friends in other communities who have had to wait, but for us it didn’t seem that difficult.”