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State Adding Teachers, School Staff to List Eligible to Receive Vaccine

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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GLOUCESTER, Mass. — Educators, early educators and school staff will be eligible to make appointments through the commonwealth's system to receive COVID-19 vaccines starting next week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced on Wednesday morning.
 
Making a stop at West Parish Elementary School, Baker said educators, who were next on the state's priority list for its phased vaccination rollout, will be able to schedule appointments starting Thursday, March 11.
 
At least five times during a half-hour appearance with the media, Baker returned to what is now a nearly daily theme in his press briefings: the commonwealth has more capacity to deliver vaccines than it has supply of the vaccines, and demand far exceeds that supply.
 
Baker said ]adding educators and school staff next week will increase the pool of eligible Bay Staters by about 400,000.
 
"They'll join several of the other currently eligible groups, including everyone over the age of 65 and folks with two or more [medical] conditions who are working their way through the system for the past couple of weeks," Baker said. "The 65-plus group and the two health conditions group, between them, represent about a million residents. So far, we've received enough vaccine to vaccinate, so far, one third of the people in that category.
 
"The math on this is pretty straightforward. If we add 400,000 people on March 11 to the eligible pool, that will mean we'll be back to having about a million people who are eligible to receive a vaccine. And, as I said, we currently receive about 150,000 first doses per week from the federal government."
 
Baker said he was disappointed when the Biden administration informed the nation's governors on a Tuesday conference call that the federal government will not be distributing any more doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine until at least the end of March.
 
"Johnson & Johnson had very significant commitments they made as part of the financial support they received under Operation Warp Speed," Baker said. "A lot of us were anticipating that once they got approved, they would meet those commitments. They're way less than half of what was presumed to come in March. Maybe they'll make up for that in April."
 
Teachers and school staff will not have a designated status in the state's COVID-19 vaccination appointment system, Baker said. They will simply become part of the existing pool of eligible residents on March 11.
 
Berkshire superintendents had been hoping to vaccinate teachers en masse as was done for health care facilities.
 
The state does hope to set aside certain days for school staff at its mass vaccination sites — like Springfield's Eastfield Mall. Baker said he does not have details on when those dates will be but said they likely would take place on weekends.
 
Baker was asked whether moving school staff ahead in the line effectively moves everyone else back.
 
"If the supply numbers don't change, yeah," Baker said.
 
But he made the announcement Tuesday to ensure that there is no confusion between the state's rules and federal guidelines about vaccine eligibility. President Joseph Biden on Monday called on states to prioritize teachers in their vaccine distribution in a move that immediately was hailed by the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union of 1.7 million members who endorsed Biden for president in 2020.
 
Baker also Wednesday said the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday would decide whether to give the commissioner of education power to determine whether remote or hybrid learning models satisfy state education requirements for elementary schools effective April 1.
 
"Around 80 percent of the state's schools are hybrid or in-person, but obviously, we'd like to see more kids in class more often," Baker said as he joined West Parish in celebrating its 101st day of in-person instruction this year.
 
"There are schools all over Massachusetts operating in person since September and doing a wonderful job of managing COVID along the way. We also have made available to any school that wants it a weekly surveillance program that the state is paying for to start with and that districts can then pay for out of their federal funds.
 
"The CDC's own guidelines don't require vaccinations for schools to open."
 
Baker said the state has administered about 88 percent of the vaccinations it has received and that the single-dose nature of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — once it is received in large quantities — will make it easier to manage the process.
 
"Every single person vaccinated so far had to go back and get a second vaccine," Baker said. "We've administered 1.8 million shots. About 1.2 million have been first doses. That means between 550,000 and 600,000 people have been fully vaccinated. If this was one shot, we'd have 1.8 million people fully vaccinated."
 
And, not for the first time, Baker defended the commonwealth's strategy of prioritizing its oldest residents and those with comorbidities in the vaccination queue.
 
"The education community was right after 65-plus folks and folks with two comorbidities on our list," Baker said. "Our list came from an advisory panel in Massachusetts that prioritized, first of all, preserving life. And the data was overwhelming that people over 65 and people with comorbidities are most likely to be hospitalized and most likely to die."
 

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White Withdraws From Williamstown Select Board Race

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Nicholls "Niko" White has removed himself as a candidate for the Select Board.
 
White had to run for the last year of the term being vacated by Jeffrey Thomas and had gained enough signatures to be placed on the ballot for the annual town election. White said he had announced to run for office when no other candidates had stepped forward and it appeared that the elected office would be uncontested or lack a strong progressive candidate. 
 
But as of last week, it had turned into a four-way race.
 
"I decided to campaign to make sure my positions were represented in the field," White said in announcing his witgdrawal from the race last week. "And now we have an embarrassment of riches in that regard. If we had ranked choice voting or another alternative to first-past-the-post, I'd view my candidacy as an asset regardless. So many folks have told me they're glad I'm running, and were eager to turn out for me. Unfortunately, we do use first-past-the-post here, which means I have to worry that by staying in the race, I will instead split the progressive vote at a critical time. I'm not willing to risk that."
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