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Schools can now be used as vaccine centers. But does it help given the shortage?

A volunteer receiving a shot in a coronavirus vaccine trial.
California schools get a thumbs-up as vaccination sites, but it could be a while before there are vaccine doses to send to campuses. In this March 2020, photo, a man receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 in Seattle.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Schools can be used as COVID-19 vaccine centers under new state guidelines, but they’ll have to apply to health authorities for the role — and the more pressing issue is the shortage of doses, not the lack of inoculation sites.

The ability to use campuses for vaccinations has been the subject of an assertive push by local school officials, especially Los Angeles schools Supt. Austin Beutner, who made the issue a central focus of a briefing this week.

“We welcome the interest from schools,” the health department said this week in written responses to questions from The Times. The department also noted that there would be challenges to setting up campuses for this purpose, including proper storage of the vaccines in regular or ultra-cold freezers, depending on the vaccine, and the chain of documentation.

“The complexity of issues including cold-chain requirements and the significant documentation requirements with the state database platform means it might not be ideal for all districts,” the department said. “Districts with already operating vaccination programs would have an easier time adopting and implementing these requirements.”

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L.A. County officials said they “are working with several districts in trying to set these up and will publicize [them] once plans are finalized,” the department stated. The goal would be to have these prepared to launch by early February, “when we expect to begin giving vaccine to Phase 1b which includes the education sector.”

In this arena, L.A. Unified has an advantage: It already oversees 12 campus-based health clinics that have administered other vaccines. The district’s internal coronavirus testing program — a $150-million effort — also has created a districtwide infrastructure that could be used to screen participants, set up appointments and track those who have been vaccinated. Both vaccines currently authorized require a second dose three to four weeks after the first.

The major barrier to school-based clinics in the short term is the availability of vaccine doses.

The distribution of doses to L.A. County has varied from week to week, but on average, the department is receiving between 110,00 to 160,000 doses weekly. For next week, the county has about 144,000 doses. An estimated 73% of those will be needed for second doses, leaving fewer than 39,000 for those seeking their first dose.

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By way of comparison, there are about 750,000 health care workers in L.A. County and about 1.4 million people who are 65 and older — all of whom are eligible to receive the vaccine.

Some experts have warned that it could be June before everyone 65 or older has access to a vaccine, which means a similar backlog could unfold for teachers.

The vast majority of L.A. County students have not returned to campus for classes since last March, when the pandemic resulted in campus shutdowns. And county health officials have strongly urged schools not to provide in-person services through January.

School districts wishing to provide vaccines — both as a public service and as a means to get campuses reopened sooner — would have to register with the state.

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But there also are options for districts that lack the resources or experience to set up their own immunization infrastructure.

“Schools and districts can also consider partnering with a nearby community clinic or other organization already up and running as a vaccination site to support distribution of vaccine at the school site and/or for their school staff,” L.A. County representatives noted in their response.

That approach is playing out in some places, including in Long Beach, which has its own health department, and plans to provide immunizations to teachers beginning next week.

The vaccination outlook for teacher varies from county to county.

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In Mariposa County, in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the Mariposa County Unified School District began inoculating staff and teachers late last week, said Supt. Jeff Aranguena.

The district has about 1,700 students and 300 staff.

Initially, about two-thirds of staff signed up to take vaccines, a figure that has now climbed to 70%. The first dose of the vaccine should be administered for all who want it by the end of the month, Aranguena said.

Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report.


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