Pa. coronavirus update: State to vaccinate teachers by mid-April; Montco plans third mass site

Pennsylvania will dedicate the newly approved single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to teachers and staff.

Activity tables are spaced apart at a Philadelphia charter school

Kindergarten students at Russell Byers Charter School in Center City sit at their own tables during activities. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Pa. plans to vaccinate teachers, staff by mid-April

Pennsylvania has a plan Gov. Tom Wolf said he hopes will ensure all teachers and staff in the state will be vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-April so kids can go back to school safely.

This week the state will receive 94,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while pharmacies will be allocated another 30,000 doses. The single-dose vaccine was approved for adults by the FDA last Saturday.

Wolf announced Wednesday that these doses will be allocated for public and private school teachers and staff, including bus drivers.

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Pre-K and elementary school teachers and staff, and those who teach students with disabilities and English language learners, will get their shots first.

Wolf estimates there are about 200,000 teachers and staff in the state, but it is not known how many of those have already received a vaccine because they’re over 65 or have a qualifying medical condition.

Wolf said more than 100,000 teachers will be vaccinated by the end of March, and he hopes all teachers and staff will be vaccinated by mid-April. That timeframe is only an estimate because the governor said he does not know when the state will receive more doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine from the federal government.

Because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one shot and can be stored at normal temperatures, teachers and staff can be vaccinated quickly, and schools can open sooner, Wolf said.

“We all know in-person education is absolutely important for students, and we all want to give our students the tools they need to succeed. A high-quality education puts students on a path to future success and a strong education system enriches our communities and enriches our economy,” Wolf said.

“We know the educational losses students have experienced over the past year are severe. Schools provide key support services beyond the classroom. There are opportunities for behavioral support programs and access to nutritional meals. But we need to make sure when students and teachers get back to school, they’re safe.”

Wolf added that vaccines are just one step to help protect teachers, staff, and students from catching the coronavirus. He said they must continue to wear masks and practice physical distancing.

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While the goal of allocating the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to teachers and staff is to reopen schools as quickly as possible, returning to in-person learning is ultimately a decision that’s up to the individual school districts. The state guidelines for in-person learning are based on geographic positive case numbers.

The teachers’ union praised this effort.

“This is an incredibly important step toward returning Pennsylvania’s schools and communities to in-person instruction and ensuring that students, school staff members, their families, and their communities are better protected from COVID-19,” said PSEA President Rich Askey in a statement.

“Making the vaccine available to school staff is a key step to getting more students back in the classroom, more parents back to work without worry, and our economy back on track. PSEA has been advocating for this kind of approach for the past six weeks, and we are very pleased that state leaders have listened and have taken swift action to put this plan in motion,” he added.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education was part of the decision-making process to vaccinate teachers and school staff. A spokesperson said the department is grateful for the vaccination initiative and supports the decision. She said schools must continue to follow other safety protocols.

“Many schools are already following the recommendations of the departments of Health and Education about whether to offer full in-person, hybrid or remote instruction,” she said in an email. “Per CDC guidance, vaccinations are not required for schools to safely resume in-person instruction. Schools must continue to practice mitigation strategies, including face coverings, physical distancing, and hand hygiene regardless of the county’s transmission level.”

To date, of the more than 3.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines Pennslyania was allocated through March 6, it administered more than 2.5 million doses total through March 2 — more than 1.7 million of those are first doses.

Montco says vaccinations are on track, plans third mass site

Montgomery County officials say the administering of the COVID-19 vaccine in the county is on the right track.

Montgomery County received all necessary second doses of Moderna this week, just two weeks after the state of Pennsylvania didn’t have enough vaccines for its residents because some providers administered doses incorrectly. 

The state said it would address the issue by extending the interval between doses to up to 42 days. The original FDA recommendation was for patients to wait 21 days for the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and 28 days for the second dose of the Moderna vaccine. However, the FDA recently said it is safe to wait up to 42 days for a second dose.

“The county wants to say ‘yes’ to any vaccine offered to us. Consequently, the Montgomery County Office of Public Health will be bringing all people back for their second dose regardless of which vaccine they received using a 28-day interval so we don’t have some individuals needing to come back in three weeks and some needing to come back at four weeks,” said Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

Montgomery County this week received 40,440 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines and has administered 29,684 first doses. There are 84,955 county residents who are partially vaccinated, and 42,232 county residents who have received their second dose.

The county urges those who cannot pre-register for a vaccine online to use the county hotline at 833-875-3967. More than 180 volunteers have been screened, background checked, and trained to answer these calls.

The county plans to open a third mass vaccination site next week near the Willow Grove Mall, but timing is dependent on how much vaccine the county receives. The county’s mobile vaccination clinic also has launched to administer shots to hard-to-reach populations.

Arkoosh said she’s also asked the state of Pennsylvania to consider carving out a certain amount of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for homebound individuals.

“We do have a number of individuals in the county who are truly homebound. There’s no way for them to get to one of our mass vaccination sites, and it would be much more efficient if we could take a single dose of the vaccine to their home rather than make two trips,” she said.

There were 898 new cases of COVID-19 in Montgomery County between Feb. 24 to March 2, which brings the county’s total number of cases to 47,091. This is an increase of cases from the week prior. However, Arkoosh said the increase could be due to a lag in reporting.

There were also 31 deaths in the county, bringing the total number of fatalities to 1,231.

There are 121 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county, which has decreased from 154 last week. However, on Oct. 1 there were only 24 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in a Montgomery County hospital.

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