By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Education Association is urging the state to give teachers COVID-19 vaccinations following the deaths of at least 39 public school employees from the contagious illness.
The group, which represents public education employees, sent a letter Friday to State Health Officer Scott Harris asking the state to direct county health departments to begin vaccinating education employees “as soon as possible.” AEA said Monday that at least 39 school workers have died from COVID-19. The number includes teachers, support staff, coaches and administrators.
“Education employees are dying on an almost-daily basis because of COVID-19 and complications therefrom. Other than the closure of schools, the only way to prevent this or slow this is to provide for the widespread vaccination of employees,” Theron Stokes, AEA associate executive director, wrote.
Alabama is currently giving vaccinations only to health care workers, nursing home residents, people 75 and older and first responders.
Under the state vaccine plan, the first shots in the rollout were given to health care workers and nursing home residents. The state announced earlier this month that it is triaging people in the 1b group because of the limited supply. The state on Jan. 18 began vaccinating people over 75 and first responders, but others in the 1b group — such as teachers — would have to wait.
AEA said that four educators in the Montgomery County Schools system died within 48 hours and a total of seven have died. Following the string of deaths, Montgomery Schools Superintendent Ann Roy Moore announced Monday that the county school system is switching to all virtual learning beginning Feb. 1 and will remain virtual until vaccinations are available to educators.
Moore said she could confirm at least four school system employees had died after contracting COVID-19.
Harris, who heads the Alabama Department of Public Health, said Friday that the supply of vaccine is the chief barrier to getting more groups vaccinated.
As of Monday, the state of nearly 5 million people has had 521,225 doses delivered to the state and 255,291 shots have been administered. Currently, there are more than 600,000 people eligible for vaccinations in Alabama, including 325,000 health care workers and 350,000 people who are 75 or older.
President Joe Biden’s administration has moved to expand national eligibility to people over 65 as part of a proposed vaccination blitz to get more shots in arms.
“We believe every one of those people deserves a vaccine and needs to get it as fast as possible. Yet at the same time adding hundreds of thousands of people to the lines we have right now, without any more vaccine, is going to be a difficult situation for everyone,” Harris said.
The state is receiving between 50,000 and 60,000 doses per week.
The vaccine rollout has been punctuated with frustration as people jammed a state appointment line trying to get an appointment for a shot.
In announcing Montgomery County’s switch to a virtual schedule, Moore said they are being told the vaccine should be available to teachers there between February and early March, but added that is not definite.
“While time out of the classroom is difficult, learning losses can be made up. Lives cannot be brought back when they are lost,” AEA President Sherry Tucker said.
Harris has said it will likely be spring or summer before the vaccinations are available to everyone regardless of age or occupation.