Biden adviser: Prioritizing teachers for COVID vaccinations is "an ANTI-EQUITY move"

Is Joe Biden’s decision to prioritize teachers for COVID-19 vaccinations insufficiently woke? The Hill reports that an epidemiologist who advised the Biden transition has blasted the move, arguing that Biden’s pander to the union comes at the expense of more vulnerable Americans — especially in minority communities. In a tweet that appears to have been deleted, NYU’s Céline Gounder called it “an ANTI-EQUITY move”:

Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at New York University who advised the Biden transition team on COVID, tweeted that the move “doesn’t make any sense.”

Gounder argued that older, at-risk teachers should already be getting vaccinated under current priority groups. She noted pharmacies are not getting any additional allocations.

Without extra supply, Gounder said pharmacies would be “taking vaccine away from higher-risk persons & communities of color to vaccine young healthy teachers. This is an ANTI-EQUITY move.”

Jen Psaki argued in response yesterday that the order covers more than just the teachers, but also other school personnel, such as bus drivers and janitors. Getting all of the personnel vaccinated would “help communities of color” by getting their children back in school, she commented, noting that those communities were already “being disproportionately disadvantaged” by the school closures.

Looks like that’s no sale among bioethics experts, however, who agree with Gounder:

“By far, the fairest, most principled, most transparent way of allocating the vaccines would be to first try to protect those who are most likely to get very sick or die,” said Daniel Sulmasy, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University.

“We’re jumping, way, way ahead of that if a teacher who’s 28 years old and healthy is getting a vaccine ahead of a 64 year old with diabetes and asthma,” Sulmasy added. “We ought to be reaching out to the people who are most in need, and making special effort to reach out to those who have been most seriously affected by the pandemic.”

That’s especially true when all of the data thus far shows less risk in properly prepared classrooms than in the general public. There are two ways of dealing with vaccines in a pandemic shortage context: prioritizing by medical risk as Sulmasy lays out, or just going first-come first-served to get as many inoculations done as fast as possible. Both have their advantages, the latter especially with a virus prone to mutations. But specific targeting to lower-risk populations as a priority makes no sense at all, epidemiologically speaking. And classroom personnel face lower risks than most in this particular pandemic.

It might make more sense, though, as an economic plan. Open the schools faster, the quicker parents can return to work, and the quicker the economic rebound. That’s a legitimate public interest, even if it’s not the way that the Biden administration is framing this reprioritization. If that’s the plan, however, one would expect the government to measure the progress to ensure we know when to reopen the schools. As the Associated Press reports this morning … D’oh!

The national rush to vaccinate teachers in hopes of soon reopening pandemic-shuttered schools is running into one basic problem: Almost no one knows how many are getting the shots, or refusing to get them.

States and many districts have not been keeping track of school employee vaccinations, even as the U.S. prioritizes teachers nationwide. Vaccines are not required for educators to return to school buildings, but the absence of data complicates efforts to address parents’ concerns about health risk levels and some teachers unions’ calls for widespread vaccinations as a condition of reopening schools.

The number of school staff members receiving vaccinations — and refusal rates — are unclear in several large districts where teachers were prioritized, including Las Vegas, Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky.

Some state agencies and districts have said privacy concerns prevent them from tracking or publishing teacher vaccination data. Others say vaccine administration sites are not tracking recipients’ occupations and they are not in position to survey employees themselves.

Anything not measured is not part of a plan, especially an economic plan. Psaki defended this policy on the basis of the need to reopen schools, but if that really is the motive, how will they know when to reopen them without this data? This makes it clear that the policy has nothing to do with epidemiological or economic priorities. So what exactly is the priority? It’s tough to conclude that it’s anything more than a political priority for Biden.