Schools pivot away from on-site vaccines over privacy concerns

Becky Johnson, The Mountaineer, Waynesville, N.C.
·3 min read

Mar. 10—Haywood County school teachers began getting their COVID vaccines last week, and by month's end, all who want a shot will have gotten their first dose.

The school system reversed course on an initial plan to take the vaccines directly to staff with on-site shots at each school campus, however. Instead, school staff will get their shots after school at clinics conducted by the county public health department.

The change came about to avoid staff feeling pressured to get the vaccine — a sentiment that was raised privately by a couple of staff members.

"They felt like there was an assumption that 'Everybody in my building needs to get it,' or 'Everyone on my hallway needs to get it,'" Superintendent Bill Nolte said. "But getting a vaccine really is a personal choice, so we felt like it would be better not to do it in a public venue at each school."

While the school system has historically offered flu vaccines on-site by school nurses, COVID is a different story. Those who don't plan to get the vaccine didn't particularly want their co-workers to know, out of fear they would be shunned, Nolte said.

Only 60% of school employees — which includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers and office staff, as well as teachers — signed on to get a vaccine through the county health department.

It's a surprisingly low number, given the high-risk category the state has assigned to teachers. School and daycare workers are the first subset of the population to be eligible for the vaccine following health care workers, first-responders and those over 65.

But the percentage of Haywood school employees who will ultimately get the vaccine clocks in higher than the 60% who've signed up for one of the three county clinics.

That's because some school employees have already sought out a vaccine elsewhere. Some have headed over to Tennessee, which isn't following a strict regimented approach to vaccine prioritization like North Carolina. Others landed vaccine appointments with private pharmacies as soon as teachers became eligible in the queue, even traveling to pharmacies out of county. Yet others have taken advantage of the vaccine clinic at Western Carolina University, while others were able to get it in the over 65 category.

Exactly how many have gotten vaccines elsewhere isn't known.

"It is a private medical decision, so people don't have to necessarily tell us they went to Tennessee or Walgreens or Western," Nolte said.

But the number likely puts the percentage of school employees being vaccinated somewhere closer to 70%.

To facilitate vaccines for school employees, the county health department created a special registry just for school staff and childcare workers.

Each school was then assigned one of three clinic days. One was held last week, with another on March 18 and the final one on March 25.

The school system skipped this week, because the window for the second shot would have fallen during spring break.

Since the usual clinic site of the Smoky Mountain Event Center (a.k.a. fairgrounds) is rented out for the Duck Duck Goose consignment sale on the last two dates, alternative venues were found — namely the Lambuth Inn parking lot at Lake Junaluska and Haywood Community College.

Despite school staff having to hightail it from campus to the clinic sites once school's out, it's no problem to get them all through during the afternoon window thanks to the county's well-oiled vaccination machine.

"Hats off to our public health folks. They have done a good job of administering the vaccines," Nolte said.