With the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines set to be rolled out this month, the jousting has begun over who will get access and when. There’s consensus on the local, state and federal levels that health care workers along with long-term care patients and employees should get the first doses. But there are plenty of competing ideas about who should get it after that.
State Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, who represents much of Long Beach in Sacramento and chairs the California Assembly Education Committee, wants to see teachers and education employees in line right behind health care workers. O’Donnell co-authored a letter with Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham calling on Mark Ghaly, the California Health and Human Services Secretary, to take that step.
“It is our understanding that the state is preparing a phased vaccination schedule with frontline health care workers and congregate care residents and employees in the beginning phase,” reads the letter. “The state should include K-12 and early education teachers and critical school staff in the following phase.”
Other lawmakers are making requests similar to O’Donnell’s. The California Latino Caucus (of which Long Beach’s state Sen. Lena Gonzalez is a member) has penned a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom requesting that the state’s farmworkers be prioritized for vaccine distribution.
“Farmworkers are the backbone of our state’s $50 billion agriculture industry and, notwithstanding their vulnerability to COVID-19, have not stopped working during the pandemic,” the letter says.
The state’s phased vaccination plan is still being worked on, but currently calls for Phase 1 of distributed vaccines to go to “persons serving in health care settings” in the 1-A phase and “other essential workers” in the 1-B phase. The ambiguity of the wording “other essential workers” leaves plenty of wiggle room in how the vaccine will be distributed.
In Los Angeles County at least, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said teachers, child-care providers, law enforcement officers and firefighters will be among those in the 1-B phase category.
“Here is where the definition of essential worker is going to be very important, in terms of, is that going to include like the grocery store clerks, et cetera, who right now still have to go to work?” Ferrer told the LA County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Critical populations” are scheduled to receive the vaccine in Phase 2, which could be weeks to months after Phase 1. K-12 school districts are listed later in the document as one of the “critical populations” in the state, alongside long-term care facilities, faith-based organizations, homeless shelters and correctional facilities.
The planning document also states that public schools and universities could be used as distribution sites once the vaccine is widely available.
The letter from O’Donnell and Cunningham outlines the challenges of virtual learning as the basis for asking educators to be moved further toward the front of the line for the vaccine.
“A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that this year’s learning loss will result in 5.53 million fewer years of life for elementary-school-aged children, cumulatively,” reads the letter. “Another study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that mental health-related emergency department visits by children increased 44% year-over-year.”
The letter also details the widening of the achievement gap between affluent and poor students, something the Long Beach Unified School District has been recognized nationally for helping to narrow.
“Interim reports from across the state show increasing rates of failure among students, especially those in lower-income neighborhoods,” reads the letter.
The question of when educators will get the vaccine is a central one in Long Beach, where education and health care are the largest employment sectors. The LBUSD is the city’s largest employers with 12,825 workers, according to 2019 data, more than twice the second-largest employer, which is the city itself.
Cal State Long Beach is the fourth-largest employer, Long Beach City College is the sixth-largest employer, and the CSULB Research Foundation is the ninth-largest employer. Health care workers are behind educators in the city, with hospitals or health care companies the third, fifth, seventh, and eighth largest employers. All but one of the top nine employers in the city are either schools or health care providers.