Hamblen educators forced to go out of county to get coronavirus vaccine

Hamblen County educators Randy and Jamie Greene got their vaccine from a pharmacy in Greeneville.

Tuesday afternoon, state officials announced teachers statewide will be eligible for the vaccine on Monday. Click here for more.

After months of waiting, dozens of Hamblen County teachers are getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but they’re not getting it in Hamblen County.

At the urging of school officials, Hamblen teachers are crossing the borders into Hawkins, Greene, Hancock and other counties to get the vaccine which will help keep them safe.

“I received my first shot Saturday in Hawkins County,” said Nikki Goforth, a teacher at John Hay. “I asked why they were able to vaccinate teachers so quickly. They said they value teachers and thought they should be first.”

At issue is the state vaccine rollout plan. The state designated several categories of who should get the vaccine first. Starting with medical workers, then the elderly, the teachers were part of the third group, designated 1b. The state left it up to regional health department directors to determine when it was best for counties under their control to move through the stages.

More than a month ago, the regional director for upper East Tennessee issued the go ahead for teachers to be vaccinated. Now, teachers in Hawkins, Greene, Hancock and other Northeast Tennessee counties are on their second vaccination while teachers in neighboring counties like Hamblen, Jefferson and Grainger have to wait.

Northeast Tennessee isn’t the only group to move ahead, in all about 40 Tennessee counties are vaccinating teachers while the rest of the 95 are not.

Dr. Jeff Perry, superintendent of Hamblen County Schools, said the system has taken a community leadership role since the pandemic began. From delivering meals via school bus to hungry students stuck on lockdown to opening the Extended School Program to allow parents who had to work and didn’t have a safe place to leave their children, Perry said the school system has done its part.

The only thing the system has asked for, Perry said, is access to the vaccine when other counties started getting it.

That request has fallen on deaf ears.

“Why are we so far behind and why are we reluctant to protect our teachers? The only excuse I have heard is that our region is following the state plan. This is unacceptable and those in public school education should be protected. Our teachers, who are taxpayers in this county, have been forced to attend clinics in other regions outside of this county,” Perry said. “Other school districts have vaccinated their teachers in a single day in an organized and structured manner. We are attempting to find substitutes each day, and disrupting the instructional process, so our teachers can go to other counties for vaccines which should have been offered in our county.

“We are doing our part in this community but state and regional officials have failed us. They have betrayed us and left us unprotected. It is time officials in charge of this program begin to take initiative and take care of those who are working so closely with children. It is disheartening to realize how little value our leaders have placed on public school educators. We can do better than this and we should do better than this.”

At last week’s school board meeting, Perry was quick to praise the Hamblen County Health Department and its officals. He laid the blame on decision makers higher up the food chain.

Last month, the Tribune asked state and region officials on when Hamblen County – and the rest of its region – would start vaccinating teachers. The answer was the state plan was being followed but officials declined to reveal what guidance the state offered on when regional health departments should advance from one stage to another.

Yesterday, during a press conference with the Tennessee Press Asssociation, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the system is not perfect and the state continues to work out the kinks.

He said this is the first time the state has had to undertake a massive vaccination program and their are issues to be overcome.

He said he understood there may be some people trying to cross county lines to get vaccinations at locations in a different phase. But, he said there have also been reports of people from other states trying to get vaccinations in Tennessee and there are also people signing up in multiple counties to try and get their shots quicker.

He said all of those contribute to logistical problems.

“I think we’ll get better and hope that everyone gets on the same level...,” he said. “We understand your frustrations.”

For their part, local teachers are bewildered and frustrated at a process that has a county 8 miles up the road vaccinating educators while Hamblen Couty waits its turn.

“Every day for the last two months, I checked the state’s website to see if Hamblen County was offering the vaccination to teachers, and every day, I was disappointed again and again,” said Whitesburg teacher Donna Kanipe, who eventually got her shot in Unicoi County which has vaccinated teachers from North Carolina, Kentucky and even South Carolina and Georgia. “Several of my friends are teachers in surrounding counties so I would see posts on Facebook and hear them talking about getting their first shots so I continued to think that surely Hamblen County teachers would be receiving our vaccines any day. However, time moved on and there was no shot at getting a shot.”

Sue King, at the Central Office, had a similar experience.

“I waited hoping that Hamblen County would be ready for us but that has not happened. I have older family members and two adult children that I need to be concerned about. I felt like I did not have a choice when the option was available in a nearby county,” she said. “It really bothers me that Hamblen County has been labeled as ‘a hotspot’ for some time and yet the vaccine is not available to our school staff. Hamblen County Schools have remained open. Teachers and staff are exposed daily to children and parents...and all of their contacts. It’s a domino effect. I am around each person that you have come in close contact with as you are with me. It’s ridiculous that Hamblen County residents should feel the need to go out of their county for the vaccine.”

Perry said that Hamblen classrooms have been open – with virtual classes an option – since September as Gov. Bill Lee and other state leaders have encouraged. The system, he said, has done everything asked of it only to be left exposed.

“Our staff work in extremely confined environments with students which places us close contract with students during the entire day. We have had hundreds of staff members contract the virus and have had several who have passed due to complications. We have done our part,” he said.

Some have asked if it’s inappropriate for teachers to cross county borders to be vaccinated. Afterall, surely the vaccines are carefully allocated and an influx of patients from other counties could throw off the balance.

In fact, there are no rules governing the matter.

Sherrie Montgomery, director for the Hamblen and Jefferson County Health Departments, said teachers or anyone else are not be prohibited from getting vaccines outside of their home county.

“There are no rules,” she said, adding. “It is encouraged to get the vaccine in your home county or the county where you work.”

She said because the vaccine is coming from federal officials there can be no residence rules attached to it. The only rules that can apply are that guidelines from whatever phase the county is in must be met.

So, she said teachers who wished to go to Hawkins or Greene counties could very well do so.

“If they called to get the appointment,” she said.

That works the other way as well, she said that Hamblen and Jefferson counties have had people from outside counties getting vaccinations.

“I think it’s happening all over to some extent,” she said.

That is little comfort to Hamblen County teachers.

Dr. Liz Neill, a teacher at Hillcrest, said she and her husband, Robb, a teacher at East High, both have had the virus. Robb was hospitalized and Liz was extremely ill.

“Our life has been disrupted. We have not seen family. We’ve lost friends. We know the situation,” she said. “Three important things need to be known about our decision to travel outside of the county to be vaccinated. First, our local health department is phenomenal. I was able to get vaccines for my grandparents and father-in-law here. It was easy. Also, our local school board and Dr. Perry have fought diligently to get vaccines to educators, to no avail.

“Secondly, until our Regional Health Director gets a sense of urgency and fully understands the gravity of this virus and its impact on public school, we will not heal. One might assume those statements would be part of the RHD’s job description. Look at a map. See who is and who is not getting vaccinated. Third, I’ve had students in my classroom everyday since day one. Read that again.

“Surrounding counties, not overseen by our Regional Health Director, have opened vaccines to teachers, phase 1B. The sign up process was easy. I got my husband and me on several waiting lists and had appointments in two different counties within four days. Robb and I traveled to Hawkins country, stayed in our car, and were vaccinated. We were treated kindly and on our way in under an hour. In one month we will repeat the process for the second dose.

“Again, look at a map. See the regions getting vaccines to educators. Look closely at the regions NOT getting vaccines to educators. There is the problem. It is sad to be a taxpayer in Hamblen County and travel beyond the county borders to get a vaccine, but it had to be done. I had to take matters into my own hands, for my family and my students.”