OKLAHOMA CITY — School personnel and younger Oklahomans most susceptible to COVID-19 can get vaccinations as early as Feb. 22, health officials announced Thursday.
Oklahoma health officials said they plan to start sending out emails allowing the next two subgroups in the state’s vaccination priority framework to start obtaining appointments on the state’s scheduling portal.
“We've made significant progress in vaccinating Oklahomans over 65. We feel it is the right time to begin vaccinating more of our at-risk population,” said Dr. Lance Frye, Oklahoma’s interim commissioner of health.
But state officials called for patience as they warned that it will likely take some time to vaccinate the 89,000 school teachers and employees and the more than 1 million Oklahomans who suffer from comorbidities such as hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic lung, liver or renal diseases that put them at high risk of death or complications from COVID-19.
“Vaccinating our most at-risk neighbors is key to preventing serious illness and deaths related to COVID-19,” Frye said. “It’s also important for us to prioritize our hard working teachers and staff. Our goal is to ensure that any teacher who wants to receive a COVID-19 vaccine has the opportunity to do so by spring break.”
Vaccine supply, which is controlled by the federal government, is still limited so there will likely be more demand than supply for many weeks, health officials said.
For weeks, health officials have been vaccinating school personnel over the age of 65, but many others fell outside the subgroup.
Health officials plan to work directly with school districts, said Keith Reed, the deputy commissioner of health. That includes contacting administrators to determine how many vaccine doses are needed at each school and optimal locations to set up vaccination sites. Districts will have to determine when they can make teachers and staff available for vaccinations.
Reed said efforts will focus on vaccinating as many teachers as possible over the two or three weeks following Feb. 22.
“Hallejuah,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the state School Boards Association. “This is a great opportunity for educators as a way to alleviate their concerns about not only being infected but also infecting students around them and their family at home.”
He also said districts are prepared to make the process seamless to ensure teachers and staff can be vaccinated as quickly as possible.
More than 600,000 Oklahomans, including health care workers, first responders and residents age 65 and older, have already received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Thursday. Gov. Kevin Stitt said the state has the sixth highest percentage of people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Reed said more than 56% of the state’s 65-plus population has received the COVID-19 vaccine, when also factoring in tribal vaccinations and doses administered through the Veteran’s Administration.
While eligibility of school employees will largely be verified through districtwide vaccination efforts, health officials said they’re relying on people to be honest about whether they suffer from a comorbidity that makes them eligible for priority access.
“We have asked that they check off an attestation within the portal that verifies that they have met those conditions,” Reed said. “At that point, we’re going to take them at their word that they meet the criteria because if we get into too stringent of a screening process, you’re going to really eliminate efficiencies in our overall program.”
Because the federal government is allocating Oklahoma's supply based on its population size, COVID-19 vaccine doses are reserved for the state’s residents, Reed said. Vaccine checks are verifying eligibility by checking driver's licenses and turning away out-of-state residents who are trying to access Oklahoma's supply.
Reed also said he hopes Oklahomans will be honest when registering in the state’s portal.
“This plan is put forth to take care of our most vulnerable first,” he said. “Make sure that you are answering honestly, and you’re reserving these vaccine appointments for those that need it most.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.