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Medford schools won't require staff to get vaccine

The Medford School District is polling its educators to determine how many are planning to take the COVID-19 vaccine during the rollout later this month — but will not require staffers to vaccinate themselves to work in school buildings.

The one-question, 48-hour poll, which was pushed out Wednesday and will close Friday at noon, is designed to help local health care providers prepare for a mass vaccination event scheduled for Jan. 21-23 at The Expo. The drive-through clinic will be for people 65 and older and educators.

Update: The mass vaccination event will likely be only for health care workers due to a federal shortage of vaccines that are shipped to states. Local and state officials learned of the shortage Thursday. The event could be opened up to educators and people ages 65 and older if more vaccine arrives than expected.

“That’s not a sign up, and they’re not committing for life,” Medford Superintendent Bret Champion said of the poll, “but we did want to get some sense to be able to share with our health care providers what the rough percentage of our staff and our partners, what that need would be. So we’ll be able to report by Friday afternoon to our health care providers roughly what percentage of folks are interested in the vaccine.”

Details surrounding the vaccination clinic are still being worked out, and it’s unclear whether there will be as many doses as there are local educators who want the first shot of the two-shot series. According to Jackson County Medical Director Jim Shames, the Oregon Health Authority informed him Wednesday that only about 100,000 doses a week would be delivered to Oregon.

“That’s a pretty slow pace,” he said, “and we’ve got 1.2 million people in the category of health care workers, those over 65 and teachers — just to put some context to what we’re going to try to do and how much vaccine we’re going to have to do it with.”

Champion said that while the district’s preference is that the vaccine rollout goes smoothly, MSD will continue to work toward reopening schools to in-person instruction regardless how many staffers receive the vaccination. The district, which has been closed to all but limited in-person instruction since last March, is planning to release a reopening plan on Thursday, Jan. 21.

“As we look toward the possible reopening of our schools, whatever that’s going to look like, the vaccine would be great if it were done before that happens,” Champion said. “However, we have continued to build a model exclusive of that.

“The reality is once there is a vaccine that’s readily available, then that becomes one other mitigating factor to getting students back into school, and so the reality is we are continuing to move forward with plans. When I said we weren’t taking the vaccine into account for our plans I mean that very seriously. We are incredibly hopeful about this vaccine but our plans don’t hinge on it exclusively.”

Champion added that the district will be encouraging staffers to get the vaccine if they can, but stressed that it will not be mandatory.

“We will welcome any educational materials that Jackson County Public Health or Oregon Health Authority can put out to talk about the safety of the vaccine,” he said, “but at this point we are absolutely not mandating the vaccine.”

According to Champion, the district has been asked to consider “tiering” its staff for the vaccine, a process that would likely move up staffers 65 and older and those who work with more vulnerable students.

“So we would certainly prioritize those terrific educators,” Champion said. “And then as we think about rollout for students coming back, our tiers would prioritize those grade levels or bands, whenever those get determined who would be going first, so we can start those folks moving along.”

When asked to estimate the net impact of a high number of educators declining to take the vaccine, Shames stressed that the efficacy rate of the vaccine — 94% according to Jackson County Public Health — strongly suggests that it would help keep the local caseload down.

“There are things we know and things we don’t,” Shames said. “We know that it means that every individual that doesn’t get vaccinated is putting themselves at increased risk of getting COVID because the vaccine is remarkably effective. What we don’t know is how effective the vaccine is at inhibiting spread of COVID. That is, I might never get sick but that doesn’t mean I can’t get the virus and then pass it on to you.

“So we don’t know how effectively the vaccine will contribute to herd immunity, but we are quite certain how effective the vaccine will be in preventing people from getting sick. That’s an issue, and the more people that decline the vaccine the harder it is to complete a strategy knowing it’s really going to work.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.