By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
K-12 teachers are among those next in line for vaccinations in Harrisonburg, as the Central Shenandoah Health District moves into phase 1b of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Getting them all immunized over the next few weeks will take the coordinated effort of the school division’s team of 10 nurses, who have now been trained through Virginia’s Medical Reserve Corps as COVID-19 vaccinators.
So far, 84% of the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ 1,070 employees have agreed to be vaccinated.
Wendy Miller and Angela Knupp, both nurses at Harrisonburg High School, were among the first cohort of Virginia school nurses who volunteered to take the Medical Reserve Corps training. They had been participating weekly in virtual meetings of school nurses across the state, sometimes 400 strong, when the Medical Reserve Corps contacted them in November to solicit volunteers to become vaccinators.
The requisite training included 15 online courses about the COVID-19 and other vaccines, as well as the properties of bloodborne and airborne pathogens.
Giving immunizations “typically doesn’t change, even from the hundred years ago or so since I was licensed in the state of Virginia,” Knupp joked.
Rather than introducing new information, the courses were more about “taking that skill set out of the box, brushing it off, and sharpening those skills and being ready to help in the community as needed,” she said.
And the community might need their help after teachers are vaccinated.
Miller told The Citizen that the Medical Reserve Corps regularly issues calls for additional vaccinators to help out in the area. She saw three or four this week, although all of them were during school hours.
“I think many of us would be willing and able to assist to help vaccinate the community,” Miller said.
All 10 nurses in the division have received their first dose of the vaccine and will have had their second before they begin administering it to teachers. Miller said the only side effect any of them experienced was a sore arm.
Dr. Michael Alexiou, an ear, nose, and throat specialist who’s leading the division’s medical advisory panel, told The Citizen that only 0.008% of COVID-19 vaccine recipients have a serious allergic reaction to it. And in the rare cases when that does happen, the treatment is simple – epinephrine, typically administered through an EpiPen. Harrisonburg school nurses have been trained in using EpiPens and will have them on hand during the teacher vaccination clinics.
“You can think of people who are allergic to bee stings … it would be exactly this same protocol,” Alexiou explained.
Alexiou was part of a virtual town hall on vaccination that the Harrisonburg School Board held during their work session on Tuesday. Teachers had submitted questions about the vaccine that were fielded by Alexiou, as well as Dr. Parag Patel, an infectious disease specialist at Sentara RMH, and Laura Lee Wight, the public information officer for the Central Shenandoah Health District.
Several teachers asked about getting the vaccine while they’re pregnant or nursing. Alexiou said there are “no contraindications” for expecting or new mothers, but that they should check in with their healthcare provider to be sure.
Spotswood Elementary School Principal Deb Cook told The Citizen that many of those questions came from her school, as the staff there includes four pregnant educators. She said that having vaccines just around the corner has created “a renewed sense of optimism” on campus.
“Our staff collectively has been very excited. This is the light at the end of the tunnel that we’ve been waiting for,” Cook said. “It also feels like we’re one step closer to having all of our students back, and at the end of the day that’s what we’re here for.”
As for other area residents, Wight said in the virtual town hall that the health district has begun contacting employers of frontline essential workers to set up their registration for the vaccine. Other demographics in phase 1b include people over 65; people in correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and migrant labor camps and people over the age of 16 with a high risk medical condition or disability.
Phase 1b will likely last into early spring for the Central Shenandoah Health District, Wight said, with phase 1c – for “other essential workers” – beginning in the spring, and phase 2 – for everyone over age 16 – this summer.
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