Oregon's Plan To Vaccinate Teachers Before the Elderly Is Terribly Misguided

If the aim is to reduce COVID-19 deaths, Oregon's plan is a failure.


In Oregon, the good news is that Democratic Gov. Kate Brown wants to open up K-12 schools starting in mid-February. The bad news is that she wants all of the state's roughly 100,000 school employees to hop the line ahead of 70- and 80-year-olds—the actual demographics most likely to die from COVID-19.

Brown is right to care about school reopening and to understand that remote learning is not serving many children well at all, least of all those with learning disabilities or those who were already liable to fall behind. But vaccine schemes that shirk the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and fail to recognize that old people are at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19, by an order of magnitude, are irresponsible and will result in deaths that could have been prevented.

Per CDC data, people aged 75–84 have a 220 times higher chance of dying from COVID-19 than people aged 18–29. People in the 65–74 age group have a 90 times greater chance of dying than those in that same comparison group. Yes, some teachers who end up vaccinated by nature of their profession, not their age, will be those at higher risk of dying from COVID-19. In non-charter public schools, the largest chunk of the teacher workforce in the U.S. (about 57 percent) are in the 30–49 age range, while only about 14 percent are under 30.

That leaves about 29 percent of the teacher workforce in the 50 and older demographic, with roughly 30 times the chance of dying from COVID-19 compared to the comparison group. So maybe there's some plausible limited case to be made for vaccinating that sliver of the workforce, or the very oldest of the bunch. But it's very hard to look at the currently available data and make the case that either a) schools are a significant vector for COVID-19 transmission from students to teachers or b) those vaccine doses being allocated to the entire pool of teachers over elderly people will do the most good, if the aim is to reduce deaths.

Do also consider the fact that vaccinating teachers might not even be the silver bullet that allows kids to return to school in a timely manner, despite Brown's best intentions. In Fairfax, Virginia, for example, the teachers union president said she opposes schools returning to full-time in-person instruction even after teachers are vaccinated. She argued the district should wait until children are fully vaccinated—something not likely to happen until 2022—rendering the need for teachers to receive vaccines ahead of many senior citizens absolutely pointless. In Virginia, both teachers and people aged 65 and older are in group 1B, competing for vaccines at the same time.

And there are plentiful examples nationwide of teachers going on strike, or unions expressing discontent with states' current vaccination plans, or people otherwise casting doubt on the idea that kids will return to classrooms in droves anytime soon. A San Francisco Chronicle headline from earlier this month puts it bluntly: "Moving California teachers to the front of the vaccine line might not be enough to reopen schools."

Here's hoping Oregon will pursue a more sane vaccination approach, one that ensures the elderly people most at risk of dying receive their vaccine doses as soon as humanly possible. Unfortunately, the few good decisions the state has made so far appear to be accidents.