A recent decision to exclude Utah State University staff members from a COVID-19 vaccination alternates list offered to faculty has vexed some university employees.
According to an email from USU management on Feb. 23, the Bear River Health Department had received approval to include USU faculty working in the heath district to join an alternates list for vaccine appointments “regardless of age or preexisting conditions.”
“COVID-19 vaccination efforts in Utah have been focused on specific groups (primarily by age or profession) to this point in the pandemic. While higher education faculty have not been prioritized in these efforts, our colleagues at Bear River Health Department (BRHD) are changing that. This change is coming about in part due to the excellent rapport that we have established with BRHD and our communications about our concern for our faculty,” the email states.
The “tightly controlled” list would not guarantee vaccination, but rather ensure no wasted vaccines at the end of each clinic day. Because the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines must be kept at very cold temperatures, if any doses are left in a vial that’s been started but no more appointments are scheduled, health workers have a list of alternates who can come to the clinic at a moment’s notice and receive the doses that would otherwise be wasted. Local health officials have tried to prioritize vulnerable populations who don’t yet qualify to sign up for regular vaccine appointments.
However, access to the “USU faculty alternate list” was not offered to university staff — some of whom work face-to-face on campus regularly.
“We deeply appreciate our staff,” said USU spokesperson Amanda DeRito, explaining the opportunity was never intended to make the staff feel unequal in value. “They are the backbone of our university.”
One USU faculty member, who spoke with The Herald Journal on the condition of anonymity, said the bulk of faculty members work from home while staff members amass the bulk of “contact” hours.
According to USU’s public COVID-19 data, there have been 380 cases among staff members statewide since March 2020. There have been 72 faculty cases statewide in the same timeframe.
“They are the ones that are in the trenches,” the faculty member said. “They’re the ones that need that protection more than the faculty.”
The faculty member, who had already made vaccination arrangements, explained they initially ignored the email, which was likely the case with other faculty members. However, once it was brought to their attention, they were “angry and disgusted” that staff members had been left out a potentially lifesaving opportunity.
“It was instant anger, instant anger,” the faculty member said. “This is a matter of life and death for some people. … I think it’s disgusting.”
Becky Winstead, an administrative assistant at USU, said since the email wasn’t sent to staff, she only found out about the alternative list by “sheer, dumb luck.” During a recent meeting, Winstead said many faculty members were making comments about the email and encouraged others to check their inbox for details.
“I looked, and I didn’t have one,” Winstead said, explaining she was eventually shown the email and found the language to be exclusionary.
Winstead, who has already received her vaccination, said her concern lies with fellow staff members and university’s communication.
“I’m worried about the staff being treated as less-than,” Winstead said. “There are people who are really face-to-face all day, every day, and they were left off this list. Meanwhile, faculty — who the majority of which are working from home — were given priority.”
Winstead said she would like to see vaccinations managed primarily by age, risk factors and perhaps contact hours. Winstead said even a small blurb addressing staff in the email or other communications with staff members would have gone a long way.
“Anything that shows that they’re fighting for us,” Winstead said.
For the faculty member, the solution is simple — open up the list to staff and issue an apology.
“There shouldn’t be a difference between faculty and staff,” the faculty member said.
BRHD spokesperson Josh Greer said the messaging from the health department included those in direct contact with students, similar to K-12 teachers, and those who fell into priority groups. To Greer, it was “very explicit” that the health department was looking to vaccinate employees in regular contact with colleagues or students, and no distinction was made between staff or faculty.
“There were some serious miscommunications,” Greer said. “The choice of wording that went out from the university, unfortunately, was theirs and it was not the full message that came from us when we asked them to identify some people.”
For Greer, it’s important to recognize that the alternative list does not a guarantee a vaccination. At the end of clinic days there can be a handful of doses available, and names on the alternative list that match closest with the current vaccination guidelines are selected. Greer said once vaccine vials are punctured, the contents must be used within a few hours. Other groups have also been asked to identify individuals for the alternative list, according to Greer.
“If I call somebody and they don’t answer the phone, I’ve got to move on to the next and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got two doses here. We’ve got to get rid of it now,’” Greer said. “We need a robust list.”
When asked if staff would be allowed to access the list, DeRito said such a decision was not up to the university at this point. However, according to press conference on Thursday from Utah Governor Spencer Cox, starting March 8 vaccinations will be offered to individuals age 50 and older and others with certain preexisting conditions. During the conference, Cox was hopeful that vaccines would be offered to the public broadly in April.
“That does increase a great deal of our people who can get vaccinated,” DeRito said. “We want to be able to protect everyone, we hope everyone gets a vaccine, but it really sounds like we’re looking at another month until we can start doing that, according to the state. We just hope everyone can hold on a little bit longer.”
DeRito said everyone at the university is essential and this incident was an unfortunate miscommunication that happened during the university’s management of a complicated pandemic.
“It’s a lot of work and, I mean, we’re bound to miss a few things,” DeRito said. “This is one of them where we could have done better — we could have explained better. It’s just one of those things, for sure, that we wish that we could have done in a different way.”