Do college professors qualify to receive the highly coveted supply of COVID-19 vaccines in Maricopa County? Depends who you ask.
At the advice of the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS), Arizona State University has been telling faculty, coaches, dorm workers, and other employees to sign up.
At the advice of Maricopa County public health officials, the Maricopa Community Colleges district has been telling employees they can't be vaccinated.
The inconsistency in the program comes from a disconnect between who the Arizona Department of Health Services and Maricopa County have decided to vaccinate and is yet another complication in the vaccination rollout attributable to state and local authorities' different playbooks.
Last week, ASU spokesperson Katie Paquet told Phoenix New Times that 11,500 employees have been deemed eligible under current or past criteria. All faculty, as well as non-faculty staff with high student contact "analogous to K-12," have been informed by the university that they are prioritized to receive vaccines, she said.
"Our notifications were based on guidance received from [DHS]," Paquet wrote in an email.
Arizona State University
Maricopa County spokesperson Fields Moseley said at a press briefing on Thursday that ASU had worked closely with the governor's office and DHS to provide vaccinations to its staff, but that the county will not be offering vaccinations at its five sites to any college employees.
"We've had communications with various education groups, but ... our mission right now, as stated on our website, is K-12 educators," Moseley said. "Once we've completed that mission, completed that group, we'll move on to broader communities."
County Disease Control Division Medical Director Rebecca Sunenshine said that the county hopes to expand eligibility in coming weeks, but there is currently a hard limit.
"Right now we're limited by how many vaccine doses we have available and how many appointments are available," she said.
A January 11 article in ASU Now, a university public relations publication, trumpets the fact that faculty members were among the first to receive COVID-19 vaccinations under the current phase 1B. It features an image of ASU professor Alexandra Navrotsky receiving a dose of the vaccine from DHS head Dr. Cara Christ during a soft opening of the state-run 24/7 vaccination site in Glendale. Navrotsky is scheduled to teach two sections of an in-person research class this semester.
Professor Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez is not teaching in person, but received a vaccination at the same time because he's an "old dude" at 84 who's still conducting research. (People in his age group are eligible for the vaccine in the current phase.)
Vélez-Ibáñez had some minor discomfort in his arm for two days, but no other issues.
"I am most grateful for the shot and the second one coming up," he said, adding that he hoped to see "real administrative vigor" to turn the tide of infection that has disproportionately affected Latino people and taken the lives of several of his students' family members.
At first, registration for ASU employees was limited to those teaching in-person classes and to in-classroom aides, but the university has since informed additional employees, including lab workers, coaches, and student dorm employees that they are eligible, ASU's student newspaper The State Press reported last week.
While ASU employees get vaccinated, local community colleges are telling employees who teach in-person classes that they aren't currently eligible for the vaccine.
Maricopa Community Colleges spokesperson Matthew Hasson said the district's COVID-19 information was coming from county public health officials, who said that instructors were not currently eligible.
"Our focus is to ensure our faculty and staff have access to the vaccine when [Maricopa County public health] determines higher education is eligible in accordance with their phased plan to administer the vaccine," Hasson wrote in an email.
Hasson said that the classes occurring in-person in the district are largely technical education or other subjects that require hands-on instruction.
That's the situation Curtis Casey is in. The 63-year-old is the head of the welding program at Mesa Community College, and he'll be teaching three in-person classes this semester. Despite not believing he was eligible for the vaccine, he tried to check state and county websites to see if there was a chance he could get vaccinated, even reaching out to the Department of Veterans Affairs to see if his veteran status could qualify him.
"I will be exposing myself to a lot of folks in the next few days," he said. "....It would just be nice to know you've done what you can do to keep you and your family safe."
He can spread his students out across the shop class space, so he's not terribly worried about getting infected, he said. But some of his colleagues have come down with COVID-19 and had a rough time with it.
Basically, counties across the state have two different levels contained in Phase 1B of their vaccine distribution plans — the current phase for Maricopa County and most of the state.
The phase generally contains essential workers, adults living in congregate settings, and now people aged 65 and older. Within the 1B population, certain groups have been prioritized due to limited supplies. People at high risk due to health conditions will have to wait until phase 1C to get vaccines.
In Maricopa County, this means K-12 teachers, daycare workers, cops, and people over 75 can get the vaccine now, while the rest of the people in 1B — like bus drivers, mail carriers, and farmworkers — have to wait. (The frontline healthcare workers and long-term care residents left over from phase 1A are still eligible.)
At state-run sites, it's a different story. DHS spokesperson Steve Elliott said in a text on Monday that higher-ed employees were prioritized at state-run vaccination sites. He said that community college employees are eligible to be vaccinated there as well. Yet the state has apparently not publicized that message.
The county and state have taken different paths on vaccine eligibility in other areas, too.
While DHS announced on Wednesday that it would expand 1B priority to people aged 65 and older, county spokesperson Moseley said at the press briefing the next day that public health will continue with its current 1B prioritization scheme, which only includes people aged 75 and older.
This means that as of January 19, people aged 65 to 74 will be able to receive vaccinations at the state-run vaccination sites at State Farm Stadium in Glendale and Phoenix Municipal Stadium near Papago Park, but not the five sites run by healthcare systems in partnership with the county.
The result has been confusion, with reporters saying at a state press briefing on Friday that they had received calls from senior citizens struggling to understand if and where they could get vaccinated, some of them in tears.
Conflict between the county and state's approaches has complicated the vaccine rollout, with the county blaming state software implemented at the last minute for messing up the implementation of phase 1A.
Joshua LaBaer, executive director of ASU's Biodesign Institute, said last week that it made sense to define eligibility more broadly, based on what he was hearing from vaccine experts.
"There is this balance between getting the vaccine to people who need it the most, but then having a system that it is so complex in its hierarchy that it actually hinders the speed at which you can get the vaccine out," said LaBaer, who was vaccinated during the previous phase of rollout at a county site.
As of Sunday, 281,270 doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered in Arizona, with 176,822 of those does going to Maricopa County. In total, the county has ordered 494,000 doses of the two available vaccines and 23,000 people have received the second dose needed to activate most of the protective effects of the vaccination.
Even as the state advertises that is opening a second state-run vaccination site at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on February 1, DHS head Christ noted Friday that it will be open for limited hours and constrained by the amount of available vaccines.
For his part, Casey at Mesa Community College was happy to hear that he was actually eligible for the vaccine, but remained realistic about his odds of receiving a dose at the state-run sites, which do not currently have any open slots through the end of the month.
"It's good to know we're eligible, but it's another thing to navigate those websites and get scheduled," he said. "I'm not going to jump for joy yet until I get off the computer with the appointment scheduled."
The state has opened appointments for February as of 9 a.m. today. You can sign up for state-run sites here or call 1-844-542-8201. You can register for the county-run locations with the more restrictive criteria here.
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