Child Care Workers Say Lack of State Effort Leaves Them To ‘Scramble’ for Vaccines

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After weeks of trying and failing to get a COVID-19 vaccination appointment, child care worker Christy Braddock said she now has peace of mind since she’s gotten her first of two shots.

“It doesn’t change anything. But it changes everything,” said Braddock, who has taken care of infants in a Silver Spring child care center since last May.

The vaccination she received was one set aside by the local health department at the direction of the state. Her employer received an unexpected email from the county inviting the center’s staff to a vaccination clinic on Daniel Avenue in Silver Spring.

But even with her newfound sense of relief, Braddock said the weeks leading up to getting the appointment were fraught with worry and frustration as she tried to get a vaccination on her own. She wondered who was going to take care of the caregivers.

“We’ve been taking care of the children of people that had to go back to work,” Braddock said. “It felt like there’s this group in society that [was] a little expendable.”

Like many of the state’s child care workers, Braddock had been hamstrung by work hours that coincided with the release of new vaccination appointments and a lack of time to navigate multiple websites.

Center directors and legislators have bemoaned the lack of a state-coordinated effort to vaccinate the vulnerable workforce it regulates and have instead placed hopes in the Biden administration’s announcement last week to prioritize child care providers at federal pharmacy partners.

At the end of January, state health department officials told local health departments to set aside 100 doses weekly for educators, which in addition to kindergarten through 12th grade teachers included 15,000 child care workers just in Montgomery County.

But those odds were unsettling to one Montgomery County child care center director who lobbied state and county officials for help and said communications from the state’s education department added confusion.

In January, the Maryland State Department of Education sent a letter to child care center providers. Lisa Heiser-Polin received the email which had a “vaccine participant survey” attached. She welcomed what she thought was a state-sponsored effort to vaccinate child care providers.

She did as the email requested and texted the survey link to her staff at Temple Shalom Early Learning Center in Chevy Chase. If they were interested, they were to fill it out.

The education department’s message also explained that State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon had recently created a plan for vaccinating educators in every jurisdiction, and the department needed “to have a count of the number of vaccines needed in each jurisdiction,” that “more information will follow in the next few weeks.”

But child care providers, like Heiser-Polin, who received the email and had their employees fill out the survey, received no further notice, leaving those who have undergirded the state’s pandemic response to fend for themselves.

At a February hearing of the House Education and Economic Development Subcommittee, Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) pressed Salmon about the survey, which he said gave child care providers the false impression their employees were pre-registering for a vaccination.

He asked Salmon to explain the purpose of the survey and the whereabouts of the valuable information collected that could be used to connect essential workers to vaccinations.

She explained to the delegate the list was sent out to get a count for the health department of the doses needed in each jurisdiction.

But Solomon found the health department’s list did not include the personal information submitted by the child care providers.

Salmon said she had to ask her legal department whether or not she could give out the names and email addresses “when they didn’t know what purpose it was going to be used for.”

“I don’t understand why you would put a list like that together, and then sit on it,” Solomon told Maryland Matters in a phone interview.

Last week, a spokeswoman for the education department reiterated that the purpose of the survey was to “better understand needed vaccine quantities” at the request of the health department.

Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery) told Maryland Matters that MSDE should have prioritized the workers they regulate, who are “largely low income women of color, who are often living in those communities that are hotspot zip codes for COVID-19.”

Kelly said she’s still hearing from centers whose workers are “scrambling” for appointments and organizing carpools to get to mass vaccination sites.

The lawmaker hopes the rollout this week of federal pharmacy partners prioritizing vaccinations for child care workers will alleviate the pressure. On Wednesday, the Biden administration told CVS and Walgreens pharmacies to make child care workers eligible along with school teachers.

To date, nearly all of the employees at Heiser-Polin’s child care center have had at least one vaccination — but not because of any state assistance.

Community volunteers hawked vaccination websites and snagged appointments on behalf of the staff.

“Government doesn’t understand how exceedingly important it is to make sure that child care workers are vaccinated,” Heiser-Polin said. Child care supports the economy, she said, calling the industry “the infrastructure of the infrastructure.”

Heiser-Polin said the vaccine rollout should be made easier, for the “thousands of childcare workers that don’t have the privilege that I have” to make it happen for their schools.

On March 1, Montgomery County’s regional office of the education department notified child care center providers of a county effort to vaccinate child care workers. Providers received an email with a link to another survey. The county’s health department, local hospital Holy Cross Health, and Nonprofit Montgomery were taking a count of child care workers interested in vaccinations needed for child care workers.

The results of the survey, they said, would “inform our request to the state for additional vaccines to support the vaccination needs of this critical and essential workforce.”

‘I just couldn’t get an answer’

Downtown Baltimore Child Care’s Director Hilary Roberts-King encouraged her staff to get vaccines as soon as the governor announced the opening of Phase 1B in a January news conference.

But “no one could get an appointment after that,” she said in an interview at the end of February. “And that’s where we are now.”

Some of her employees have gotten appointments here and there — at a Safeway, or at the Baltimore Convention Center. But she estimates only around 12% of her 100 or so staff members, the majority of whom she says are Black and Brown, have gotten their first vaccination.

Roberts-King said she reached out to the state health department and MSDE to find out what resources would be available to help get her staff vaccinated.

“I just couldn’t get an answer,” she said.

Roberts-King is giving all staff members a paid day off when they do get vaccine appointments.

Kiara Matthews, 28, who works at the Weinberg Early Childhood Center, one of Downtown Baltimore’s three locations, says bouncing between the Walgreens and Giant websites is not the challenging part, “it’s just finding the time.”

Kateri Weldon, who also works at Weinberg, said if not for the dedicated efforts of her center director trying to get her an online appointment, she still would not have one.

The Baltimore City Health Department sent its own interest survey to around 722 child care centers. As vaccine supply became available, the city health department forwarded the contact information of interested child care providers to their hospital partners, who then connected the child care workers to appointments.

Mary Grace White, the director of the city’s Office of Acute Communicable Diseases, along with her team, says the survey is one method to get essential workers appointments.

“If you’re able to find an appointment, go ahead. But this is another way for us to be able to offer that,” she said.

The city health department will continue to proactively connect child care workers to appointments until everyone who wants a vaccination has one, but White was not able to say how many workers have been connected to vaccinations so far. Recordkeeping was not her first priority, she said.

“The focus here is to be able to offer this opportunity for them,” White said.

Brenda Wintrode is a contributor to Maryland Matters. She can be reached at [email protected]