OLYMPIA — With the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting new guidelines for reopening schools, lawmakers of both parties are calling on the state to revise its vaccine priorities to allow all teachers to be vaccinated.
U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district spans the Cascades to include parts of Eastern and Western Washington, said children need to be back in the classroom "as quickly as we can do it safely," which is why proposals before Congress have what she considers abundant funding to help schools with things like spacing, masks and distancing.
"Frankly, I think teachers ought to be right at the front for immunizations, because it helps all of us when our kids are back in school," said Schrier, who is a physician. "It helps all those frontline workers, who need child care for their children, to have them back in school."
State Rep. Joe Schmick, a Colfax Republican who serves as the GOP leader on the House Health Care Committee, agreed. Vaccine protocols should be "geared toward teachers and getting them back into schools."
Under current state guidelines, most school employees do not currently qualify for the vaccines. The vaccines are prioritized for health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and workers at those facilities, plus residents who are 65 and older or at least 50 and living in a multigenerational household.
The Whitman County Health Department had a plan to use some of its COVID-19 vaccine supplies last week for teachers in local school districts, but state officials nixed that plan, Schmick said. Instead the vaccines that weren't going to be used for county residents who fit the guidelines were sent to other counties, he added.
"I was very disappointed," said Schmick, who added he believes many people have urged Gov. Jay Inslee to prioritize vaccinations for teachers and school staff but "he chose not to listen."
Inslee has received "a lot of input" from people about vaccinating teachers, said Tara Lee, the governor's communications director. The state is reviewing CDC guidance and Inslee is committed to getting students and educators back into the classroom in a safe way.
"The current vaccine prioritization is a million and half people who are eligible," Lee said. "We are focused on getting them their vaccines before expanding or moving to a new phase."
The doses that Whitman County had planned to use to vaccinate teachers were sent to other Eastern Washington counties to be used for people eligible under the current protocols, she said.
"This is about statewide vaccination efforts," she said about the order to move vaccines to other counties rather than letting the Whitman County Health District use them for teachers and school employees.
"We need to look at the whole state, not just one county who have successfully vaccinated all currently prioritized people" Lee said. "We cannot let them start adding in new people when so many people in the current prioritization have not received it yet."
State Sen. Lisa Wellman, a Mercer Island Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, said she has also recommended the governor consider giving teachers a higher priority for vaccinations if possible.
"Definitely it would make a difference for teachers who have been vaccinated to feel they can return safely," Wellman said.
The Tulalip Tribe recently gave some of its unused vaccine allotment to the local school district, she said. The tribe, as a sovereign nation, has more flexibility than a county health district, she added.
The main problem is the limited availability of vaccines, Wellman and others said. Although Washington has administered more than 1 million doses , both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioTech vaccines require two doses for full vaccination. Last week the state prioritized giving second doses because in previous weeks some providers had used supplies they originally set aside for that second dose, using them to give new patients their first dose.
That has resulted in a scramble for people who are eligible to get the vaccine to find a location where they can get a first dose. Wellman said she qualifies for the vaccine as someone older than 65, but has been unable to find a site where she can get an appointment.
"I would give up my slot for a teacher," she added.
Schrier said the nation needs to rethink its vaccination priorities.
"All along, we made collective decisions as a country, and if we had all decided jointly that our priority was getting kids back in school, we would have made very different decisions, whether that's about holiday travel, 4th of July picnics, going to bars, you name it," she said. "I'm not saying any of those are bad activities, I'm just saying they did slow us down from getting kids into schools."