At-risk district teachers get New Year’s shot in the arm

Some AISD staff 65 and over or at high health-risk start 2021 by receiving first dose of Moderna or Pfizer vaccine

West+found+out+she+was+eligible+for+the+vaccine+after+checking+her+voice+mail+on+New+Year%27s+Day.+Smith+said+she+was+in+and+out+for+her+first+shot+in+20+minutes.+Both+said+the+process+was+well-organized.+West+urges+that+everyone+be+kind+to+each+other+and+understanding+toward+health-care+workers.+

Photos courtesy of West and Smith

West found out she was eligible for the vaccine after checking her voice mail on New Year’s Day. Smith said she was in and out for her first shot in 20 minutes. Both said the process was well-organized. West urges that everyone be kind to each other and understanding toward health-care workers.

Alysa Spiro, opinion editor

A limited number of Austin ISD teachers and staff began their spring semester with a COVID-19 vaccine shot in the arm. The first round of vaccine distributions for the district’s teachers came about through a partnership between AISD and Ascension Seton. 

Ascension Seton nurses and health-care staff have provided health services in Austin ISD schools for more than 24 years.”

— Dr. Jason Reichenberg, president of Ascension Medical Group

Dr. Jason Reichenberg, the president of Ascension Medical Group at Ascension Texas, told The Shield in an exclusive interview that after receiving both Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses from the State of Texas, Ascension Seton first vaccinated their frontline caregivers, such as ICU doctors, nurses and certified nursing assistants. 

“Ascension Seton took extra steps to ensure these frontline staff had access to the vaccine, and worked to eliminate social and economic barriers to ensure that our staff who are most at risk could receive the vaccine as a prioritized group,” Reichenberg said.

Alongside the vaccination of their frontline workers, Ascension Seton began a partnership with Austin ISD and Round Rock ISD to begin the vaccination of teachers who qualify under phase 1B of the Texas Health and Human Services COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan. Phase 1B includes persons over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions.

Ascension Seton has a longstanding partnership with Austin ISD in which Ascension Seton nurses and health-care staff have provided health services in Austin ISD schools for more than 24 years,” Reichenberg said. 

How it works

On Jan. 1 , Austin ISD was contacted by Ascension Seton about the availability of an initial round of vaccine doses. Upon receiving this notification, the district had to contact eligible employees.

That task fell to the Human Capital Department, led by chief Leslie Stephens.

“We [the Human Capital Department] were the ones then who spent Jan. 1, 2, and 3 notifying eligible people,” Stephens told The Shield. “Also in a lot of cases, a lot of our time was spent once we got a hold of an employee. We were actually the ones who were on the Ascension Seton website, registering them for appointments so that they got a date and time to go get a vaccination.”

When the person answers the phone, and you tell them why you’re calling, you get all kinds of emotional responses. It has been extremely positive.”

— Leslie Stephens, AISD Human Capital Department chief

According to Stephens, the employees first contacted for a vaccine on Jan. 1-3 by the Human Capital Department already had medical information on file because they had previously requested a medical accommodation. Stephens and her department were aware, however, that there were more employees who qualified for 1B for whom the district didn’t have medical information on file.

“So, we sent out a Google Form to all AISD employees and said, ‘If you qualify under 1B, fill this out.’ I think we had over 700 employees who filled out the Google Form,” Stephens said. “So, the next time we were notified of available slots, we literally opened up the Google Form and went straight down that list in the order they filled it out. We contacted those employees and registered them right then and there and gave them their time slot and the location and all that information.”

For Stephens, the experience of contacting and scheduling employees for a vaccine slot has been incredibly rewarding.

“It’s not my typical day-to-day thing, but the experience has been wonderful,” Stephens said. “When the person answers the phone, and you tell them why you’re calling, you get all kinds of emotional responses. It has been extremely positive. They are very grateful and that part of it has been wonderful.”

How it feels

Some McCallum teachers have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine over the first two weeks of 2021. For ceramics teacher Carey West, the last thing she was expecting on New Year’s Day was a call from the district.

“I got a phone call on New Year’s Day late in the evening,” West said. “It was weird to be getting a school call so late, so at first I ignored it, but then I looked at the messages, and it was like ‘Do you want to COVID-19 vaccine?’ and of course I was like ‘Yes.’ So I checked my email and I signed up.”

On Jan. 4, West showed up at Texas Ascension’s administration building in the Mueller development and received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. She described the process of getting her vaccine as “fairly seamless.”

It was weird to be getting a school call so late, so at first I ignored it, but then I looked at the messages, and it was like ‘Do you want to COVID-19 vaccine?’ and of course I was like ‘Yes.’”

— ceramics teacher Carey West

Like West, biology and environmental science teacher Margaret Smith recalls the experience of getting her first COVID-19 vaccine as being easy and efficient. After receiving a phone call from the district on Jan. 10, Smith drove to a nearby drive-thru clinic the same day to receive her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“When I got there, there were three different stations with two lanes each, so they [those administering the vaccine] were doing six people at a time,” Smith said. “The first volunteer brought me paperwork and told me to put it on my dash when I was done. They [the volunteer] came back, picked up my paperwork and asked me a couple questions. Once they were done with that, they wrote a number on my windshield to show that I was ready to go. So I rolled my car up, somebody came up, gave me the shot in the arm and wrote the time on my dashboard. I sat there for another 10 minutes to make sure I didn’t have a reaction and then off I went.”

Smith was in and out of the drive-thru clinic with a shot of the Moderna dose within 20 minutes. She describes it as the easiest thing she’s ever done. 

“It was so organized. I thought they were innovative in how they carried out the process,” Smith said. “Also, the shot didn’t hurt at all. My arm was sore for two days, just like it would be for a flu shot. But I had no other reactions—no sniffles, no feeling bad, no tiredness, nothing.”

What it means

Despite the first round of vaccinations being administered in Austin, Ascension Seton’s Reichenberg stressed the importance of continuing to follow COVID safety guidelines, regardless if one has the vaccine or not.

It is not yet clear from the vaccine trials whether individuals who receive the vaccine can still transmit COVID-19 to others,” Reichenberg said. “It is therefore very important that even those vaccinated take the same precautions as before to ensure that they do not inadvertently spread the virus as a carrier.”

It’s been really hard making all these sacrifices, not seeing the people we love,” she said, “but I feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel now.”

— biology and environmental science teacher Margaret Smith

West believes it’s important for people to realize the magnitude of work that is done to distribute vaccine doses throughout Austin. 

“There’s going to be mistakes,” she said. “Someone is going to get it before someone else who should have gotten it. But can we be kind? And have some grace towards each other? And know people are working as hard as they can to keep people safe? People need to voice their rights and say ‘Hey what about my group?’ But we also need to realize that this is going to be a big process, and we can’t get angry at every little mistake.”

Smith remains optimistic about what this first round of the vaccines distribution means for the larger Austin community. 

“It’s been really hard making all these sacrifices, not seeing the people we love,” she said, “but I feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel now.”

CLARIFICATION: We revised the sub-headline to make it clearer that not all eligible teachers participated in this initial distribution of the vaccine.