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L.A. schools should become COVID-19 vaccine centers, Beutner says

Cars line up amid rows of cones
The Los Angeles schools chief wants the district’s campuses to become COVID-19 vaccination centers. Above, mass vaccination of healthcare workers takes place at Dodger Stadium on Friday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles schools Supt. Austin Beutner on Monday pressed for using schools as COVID-19 vaccination centers, saying his 900 campuses are “ready to go” — a move that could speed up the reopening of in-person classes for students.

Beutner made his case for campus vaccination clinics as the COVID-19 pandemic courses through the county and as state and county officials grapple with a confusing and chaotic vaccine rollout amid growing concerns about the supply.

“Schools which are part of Los Angeles Unified are uniquely situated — and uniquely qualified — to help in the vaccination effort,” Beutner wrote in a Monday letter to Dr. Mark Ghaly, who heads the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, and to Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

The school district’s involvement in vaccine distribution could have the benefit of getting doses for teachers more quickly. L.A. County public health officials estimate that vaccines will be available for teachers some time in February — if the county has the required doses.

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Beutner noted that teachers in other areas — including New York and Riverside — are already getting vaccinated.

The Long Beach Unified School District, which operates under the health department of the city of Long Beach, is optimistic that immunizations will begin “as soon as Jan. 25,” said spokesman Chris Eftychiou. “But we’re awaiting final confirmation from the health department.”

Long Beach is the county’s second-largest school system, although much smaller than L.A. Unified.

Students, however, are unlikely to be immunized for some time because the vaccines have yet to be determined safe for children.

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City and county officials have struggled to ramp up vaccination infrastructure. Supplies have been limited, and available doses aren’t being distributed as quickly as hoped. There’s talk of operating Dodger Stadium, which has become a massive drive-through vaccine clinic, as many as 24 hours a day, if the appropriate staffing can be found.

In an interview, Beutner said the district has been involved in ongoing discussions with state and county officials, but things “are not moving as quickly as we’d like.”

Other local school leaders also have expressed concern that the L.A. County health department is not moving quickly enough and said they feel left out on their own.

“L.A. County has no plan to vaccinate any school employees, yet we are included in their next tier,” said Supt. Alexander Cherniss of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified. “We are anxiously waiting for a plan of action to speed up this process for everyone.”

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Las Virgenes Unified, near the Ventura County border, also hopes to bring vaccinations to campus, but would rely on local health providers for the infrastructure, said Supt. Dan Stepenosky.

County officials have defended their efforts. The health department on Monday provided a brief statement that emphasized collaboration.

“We are working closely with all school districts to prepare for vaccinating teachers and staff and appreciate all efforts to help,” the statement said.

The state health department responded in a similar vein: “We welcome the willingness of all entities to help vaccinate Californians.”

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Beutner sought to bring public pressure to bear through his letter, which he released publicly, and in his regular prerecorded Monday broadcast.

“So many communities in the Greater Los Angeles area lack access to healthcare,” Beutner told The Times. “And if we don’t bring healthcare to people, they’re going to continue to lack access to healthcare, including vaccinations. And one of the virtues of schools being located in every neighborhood, every community in the areas we serve, is that we can bring access to where people are.

“Anywhere that access can be safely provided in any trusted location, our health authorities should be taking advantage of — whether it’s a school, a library, any fire station, the parking lot of a stadium, wherever that might be.”

In a briefing to school leaders this month, county health Director Ferrer expressed some skepticism about using campuses. She noted that people receiving shots would need to be monitored and potentially treated for adverse reactions as well as tracked for their follow-up shot in the two-dose treatment.

Beutner said the district is well prepared for such issues. He noted that the nation’s second-largest school system has 12 campus-based clinics already licensed to provide vaccinations. In addition, he said, the district employs more than 450 registered nurses and 120 licensed vocational nurses, “all of whom can administer the vaccine and attend to those who may have an adverse reaction to the vaccine,” he said in his broadcast.

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Moreover, he said, the district is prepared to scale up further because “Anthem Blue Cross and Health Net … have both committed to provide additional clinicians to support a school-based vaccination effort.”

To manage traffic, the district could rely on 1,400 people who are involved in food distribution and school-based coronavirus testing. The tracking structure developed for testing could carry over to a vaccine effort, Beutner said.

In the best-case scenario, teachers would be vaccinated by the time it is possible to reopen campuses in L.A. County, Beutner said.

The district is in negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles over what a return to campus would look like. It’s possible that teachers and their union leaders will resist coming back unless they first are able to be vaccinated.

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Both sides agreed to a Jan. 24 deadline to settle terms for reopening — which would take effect only when it’s safe to reopen.

It’s less clear who would be able to define what community conditions would qualify as safe enough. Gov. Gavin Newsom has changed the threshold for the start of a voluntary reopening process three times. First, the state said campuses could reopen when counties reached a seven-day average of seven cases per day for every 100,000 residents. In December the number rose to a seven-day average of 28 daily cases per 100,000. Last week the state slightly tightened the number, to a seven-day average of 25 or fewer daily cases per 100,000 residents.

Newsom has promised school districts extra funding to reopen — and regular coronavirus testing is part of his plan. Newsom also has prioritized the vaccination of teachers, but he hasn’t proposed making it a prerequisite for a return to campus.

The L.A. teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, could not be reached for comment on Monday.


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