Seeking normal: Teachers get vaccinated

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Michelle Watkins, a teacher at Christenberry Elementary School, breaks into grateful tears when she remembers first seeing it. 

She’d covered the 74 miles from Knoxville to Rogersville in an hour and 15 minutes. But the drive, which carried her east on Interstate 40 and then north on I-85, felt a lot shorter.  

“That drive felt like 20 minutes,” Watkins said. “It felt monumental.” 

As the calendar moved into the last week of February, the Knox County teacher was on her way to get the initial shot of the COVID-19 vaccine series at the first place that would have her. 

As she arrived at the Hawkins County Health Department, she spotted something that made her break down in the parking lot.

“They had an American flag…” Watkins said, her voice shaking. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.”

No one knows how many Knox County teachers have been vaccinated or have traveled to other counties for their shots, but all are relieved that the men and women in charge of the system’s 60,000 students are finally getting some protection.

What had initially been — in theory at least — an orderly rollout of the vaccine that would ensure people were inoculated in order based on their jobs and health conditions ended up mired in confusion.

For instance, healthcare workers and first responders were to get the shots first while teachers were in the second group. 

While the state Department of Health was technically supposed to be calling the shots, individual regional health departments also had the authority to determine on their own when teachers could start the injections.

Several counties in Upper East Tennessee, like Hawkins, ended up offering the shots while Knox County was still only vaccinating the first group. 

Nowhere did it say in the rules that teachers were required to only be inoculated in the county where they lived. 

The result was predictable. As word spread that counties to the north were vaccinating all comers with a teaching license, untold numbers of educators started flocking to rural health departments up to a hundred miles away.

At one point, 40 of 95 Tennessee’s counties were offering the vaccine while the rest weren’t. 

State officials never gave a reason for why some counties allowed teachers to get inoculated while others had to wait. They instead said that counties had the discretion to move to different stages, then they backtracked and said state officials would decide when counties would proceed to the next phase.

Teachers like Watkins, however, didn’t care much about the policy disputes. She just wanted to get vaccinated to protect herself and her loved ones, and then one day last month she heard from a friend that other counties were vaccinating.

“She just started registering with other counties,” Watkins said. “So, that’s what I did.”

Watkins scheduled a reservation in Hawkins County, which she had never even visited. She looked at a map and drove to the health department on her appointed time. She said that when she walked in the building, everyone was friendly and didn’t care at all that she was from Knox County.

“I told the nurse, ‘I wish I could hug you,’” she said.

She now has a card that says her second and final inoculation should be on March 15. 

With all the potential legal hurdles cleared, Knox County is now pushing hard to vaccinate all its teachers.

East Tennessee Children’s Hospital stepped up and, as of March 1, a total of 675 teachers had gotten the first of their two doses, school officials said Thursday.

Based on the doses available, 225-250 people can be vaccinated daily at the hospital, said Carly Harrington, Knox County Schools spokeswoman. 

Other employees across the system have taken advantage of other healthcare providers, but the school system doesn’t have the total number of teachers who have been vaccinated.

Harrington said the school system did conduct a survey in January asking how many school employees planned to get vaccinated. A total of 5,850 employees said they would get inoculated out of approximately 10,000 employees that work for the system.

The state announced this week that it would go into the next phase of vaccinations, which includes those with one or more serious health risk conditions that puts them in a high-risk category from COVID-19.

As of Thursday, 541 people have died in Knox County since the pandemic began last year. Statewide, the death toll stood at 10,501.

C.J. Perez, a high school history teacher in Knox County, also called around to find a place to get vaccinated when she learned out-of-county options were available.

She got her first shot two weeks ago. She said it was a “burden off her chest.”

The quicker she can be fully vaccinated, the quicker things can get back to some type of normal.

Perez is ready to see her grandparents again and not be worried about getting them sick. She’s only seen them a handful of times over the last year since the pandemic hit, but those visits have always been while wearing a mask and carefully practicing socially distancing. 

Her grandfather is 80 years old and has health problems. 

Perez drove herself to Claiborne County to get vaccinated and a colleague drove all the way to Unicoi County in upper northeast Tennessee.

“I think we’re all in the same boat,” Perez said. “The faster we get vaccinated, the faster we can get back to being normal teachers again.”

Cliff Hightower can be reached at cliffhightower@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on March 5, 2021.

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