Hamilton County teachers travel to nearby counties for COVID-19 vaccine

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nurse Darlene Toney prepares to administer a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination site at the Tennessee Riverpark on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. Some Hamilton County teachers are driving to nearby counties to receive the vaccine.

Last Wednesday, Julie Smith, a teacher at East Hamilton High School, drove to Warren County, Tennessee, for her afternoon appointment to receive her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The hour-and-a-half drive was easy and the process ran smoothly, she said.

Just a few hours earlier, Chris Greenwood, a science teacher at McCallie School, made a similar drive to Warren County to receive his first dose-it was an easy process for him, too. Both teachers were told they would receive a call when the time comes for the second dose, in about a month.

Teachers are eligible to take the vaccine in phase 1b of vaccine distribution, and some Hamilton County teachers, including Smith and Greenwood, are making the drive to nearby counties like Warren that have already entered this phase. Other counties north of Hamilton, like Van Buren, White and DeKalb, have also entered phase 1b.

Currently, Hamilton County is in phase 1a1 and 1a2, covering people ages 70 and older and a range of health care workers. There is a high demand for the available vaccines in more metropolitan areas like Chattanooga compared to more rural areas. None of the other three counties in the state's "big four" - Davidson, Knox and Shelby - have moved into phase 1b either, according to state data.

While the county hasn't yet moved into phase 1b, Hamilton County Schools is working with a company called One to One Health to administer vaccines to teachers upon entering the next phase. Now, One to One Health's plan is awaiting state approval, and the district has been advocating for the plan's approval since December, said Hamilton County Schools communications officer Cody Patterson.

"That's where our focus has been, is elevating the importance for, No. 1, teachers to be vaccinated, and No. 2, for our health partner to get approved so that we can start bringing the vaccine to our schools," Patterson said.

Greenwood learned about traveling outside the county for the vaccine through the student health services director at McCallie. She sent a link to an interactive map on the state's website where each state is color-coded by phase, and clicking on a county provides more detailed information for how to sign up for a waitlist, Greenwood said.

Smith was on the waitlist for a vaccine appointment in five counties across Middle Tennessee including Warren, Van Buren and White. Warren County was the first to call with an open appointment. Like Smith, Greenwood was on multiple waitlists and also got a call from Warren County first.

Greenwood said getting the vaccine was a way to do his part in ending the pandemic and continue in-person learning.

"I feel like by me getting vaccinated as soon as possible that it's in the best interest of students, because if I'm well, then their science teacher can be there in person as well also, and that serves them better than if I have to stay home," Greenwood said.

For Smith, getting the vaccine had personal and professional ties: It's a way to protect herself and her parents from exposure to the virus and to get students back into classrooms.

"I see the stress and the anxiety that my students are experiencing this year, and I see how difficult it is to learn in this virtual or hybrid environment that they have been in and it is stressful and anxiety-filled for teachers," Smith said. "I want my kids back in front of me, I need that face-to-face connection with them to be able to assess their engagement with the class, their progress in the class, and I think the quicker that teachers can get the vaccine, the quicker we can get back to having our students in our classrooms all the time."

Similar concerns were expressed by teachers and community members who signed a Hamilton County Education Association petition, which is up to 665 signatures. The petition calls for the county to move into phase 1b and work with the school district to vaccinate teachers and school staff.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.