Educators, food service workers and emergency personnel in Santa Clara County will all be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 28, county health officials announced Wednesday.
The decision shifts the county away from age-based eligibility by allowing those in higher-risk occupations to receive the vaccine, including restaurant and grocery store workers, food manufacturers and public safety workers. It also opens the door for teachers and child care workers to get vaccinated, largely seen as a key to safely reopening schools and garnering the support of teachers unions.
The expansion comes despite the fact that vaccine supply in the county remains limited and future allocations from the state are still largely a mystery. County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said that has not changed, but vaccine progress to date shows that the county is "in very good shape" to broaden eligibility for front-line workers.
With the broadened eligibility, Cody said it will be a top priority for the county to ensure that residents in ZIP codes with the highest infection rates — particularly east San Jose and south county — will have easy access to the vaccine.
"As we continue to expand this access we will continue to focus on equity to ensure that those who are living in communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19 have access to the vaccine and get vaccinated," Cody said.
The new eligibility encompasses a trio of occupation types — education and child care, emergency services and food and agriculture — all three of which are defined by the state and available online. For education and child care, the list includes all formal and informal child care workers including day care; college and university staff; and education support service workers. Even workers outside of the classroom, such as bus drivers and crossing guards, will be included.
For months, teachers unions across California have repeatedly argued that the safe reopening of schools is conditioned on educators receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Many Bay Area school districts remain closed for in-person instruction, in part due to reluctance on the part of staff to return to the classroom.
But it's unclear how much can change from the new vaccine eligibility, at least right away. Cody cautioned that she does not have the authority to compel schools to reopen, and that county health officers can only close schools and provide reopening guidance. And even if school districts seek to reopen, students in grades seven through 12 cannot resume in-person instruction until the county has reduced community transmission of the virus and returned to the "red tier" and stays there for five consecutive days.
Gov. Gavin Newsom made public statements last week that he has yet to strike a deal between state legislators and school groups, notably the California Teachers Association, on reopening schools — many of which are still shuttered nearly one year into the pandemic. Palo Alto Unified and the Los Altos school districts returned to in-person instruction late last year, while the Mountain View Whisman School District has taken a more cautious approach and aims to reopen next month.
The Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, meanwhile, is preparing to return to in-person learning once the county reaches the red tier. Daily new cases in the county have sharply declined since the peak on Jan. 8, and are back down to the same level as mid-November last year. COVID-19 hospitalizations, likewise, have declined significantly since the surge during the holiday season.
Though good news, Cody said the county still has to contend with new, more virulent strains of COVID-19 that are spreading in the county and across the country, which could keep case rates elevated and delay the reopening of middle and high schools.
"It's difficult to say how that might impact the case rates," she said.
Later next month, California residents with developmental disabilities and other high-risk conditions will also be eligible to receive the vaccine, substantially increasing the number of residents eligible to receive the vaccine.
At the same time, state officials announced that a private organization, Blue Shield of California, will be responsible for the state's COVID-19 vaccine rollout starting in March. The company has vowed to accelerate vaccine availability, but how it will impact the county largely remains a mystery, Cody said.
"We are not quite exactly on what our role will look like in mid-March, but between now and then we are going to continue to move as fast as we can to get shots in arms, and ensure equity while we do it," she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.