Special COVID-19 vaccination plan for Hamilton County Schools teachers on hold as supplies remain limited

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are seen inside of the pharmacy station at the Hamilton County Health Department's new COVID Vaccination POD at the CARTA Bus Terminal on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

When Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson announced the district's spring reopening schedule, he noted the school system's plan to vaccinate teachers on campus through a private provider.

Teachers and other school staff will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday but, like other workers and eligible groups in the county, many will be making appointments online and traveling to one of the county's three vaccination sites.

The school system's plan is on hold after winter weather delayed shipments this week and supplies remain limited. One to One Health, the provider contracted with HCS, applied to get vaccines from the state rather than having Hamilton County allocate doses to it from the county's weekly shipment. The Tennessee Department of Health approved One to One Health to receive, store and distribute vaccines as a provider last week. So far, doses have not been delivered.

Cody Patterson, communications officer for the district, said the school system is ready to get its teaching staff vaccinated and still intends to use One to One Health once vaccines are available. The district has worked with One to One in the past to distribute flu vaccines.

The state has marked certain numbers of doses in the past from Hamilton County's weekly shipment for priority groups, such as for residents of long-term care facilities. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger told members of the county commission Wednesday the latest shipment of vaccines from the state did not allocate any doses for teachers.

"We would love to just stop everything and do just teachers and then have people doing the community as well. But what we get is for everybody," Coppinger said during the meeting. "They didn't separate it out."

Setting aside doses specifically for public school teachers also would raise questions of fairness, given the variety of private schools in the area, Coppinger told the commission.

"When we're trying to vaccinate everyone 65 and above, and we're trying to do teachers, we're also trying to do day cares, every single one of these groups, as you all well know, because you hear from it too. All think they should be at the front of the line," Coppinger said.

The county and state expanded vaccine eligibility to teachers, child care workers, other school staff and people ages 65 and older starting this coming Monday, sparking a rush to make appointments. The decision, which puts Hamilton County in step with surrounding counties, added tens of thousands of people to the eligible pool starting next week.

Teachers across the country, and around Chattanooga, advocated for local governments to make them an eligible category as in-person learning increases in the spring semester. Hamilton County Schools determines the number of on-campus days each week, in part, based on the number of active cases in the county. This week the number of active cases in the county dipped below 1,200 for the first time since the last week of October.

During the Hamilton County Commission meeting Wednesday, Commissioner David Sharpe questioned whether there was something the county could do to provide access to the vaccine for teachers so they would not have to take off work, potentially during classroom time.

The county offers vaccines from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. most days, including weekends.

"There's not necessarily any right answers," Sharpe said during the meeting. "And I know that everyone is working very hard on this. But as pressure to get back into schools - both public and private, because I'm not trying to single out any organization here - but as that pressure increases throughout our community, I think it would be good if we could make an extra effort to help address the concerns of those teachers in the classroom."

Coppinger and Becky Barnes, administrator for Hamilton County Health Department, said the county would offer more vaccine appointments if they had more supply. The county expects to continue getting around 5,000 first doses a week for the next few weeks, Barnes said.

"We realize the burden it is on all occupations to take off work to get vaccinated, be it first responders or health care workers," Barnes said during the meeting. "We offer Saturday and Sunday vaccinations. We're at it seven days a week."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.