State vaccine guidelines leave out university faculty, raise concerns

Misunderstandings and miscommunication from the state and federal government have left some USF faculty and staff vaccinated and others turned away. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/UNSPLASH/Steven Cornfield

After receiving her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Megan Flocken, a visiting instructor at USF’s College of Arts and Sciences and adjunct instructor at Hillsborough Community College (HCC), breathed a sigh of relief for the first time since the pandemic hit.

When Flocken heard eligibility for some educators had opened up March 3 following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order, she ventured to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) vaccination site March 5 in hopes of securing her shot to safely visit her mother again.

She was able to get her first dose and scheduled the second one, so she shared the information with her colleagues. Like her, other higher education faculty heard from co-workers that they could get vaccinated at federal sites and were successful in doing so.

“I was briefly asked by the attendants, who were mostly military personnel who were working through long lines, at three different points whether I was an educator,” Flocken said.

“But there was no [question] specifically ‘Are you a K-12 educator?’ … they didn’t ask me any specifics. The only form of identification I ever had to show was right before they gave me the vaccine, which was a driver’s license.”

The mixed messages from the federal and state government in the vaccine distribution have left some educators confused about their eligibility to receive the vaccine. As of March 14, DeSantis had extended the vaccine’s eligibility requirements to law enforcement officers, firefighters and K-12 employees 50 years or older.

Even though higher education faculty and staff less than 65 years old were not eligible to receive doses based on DeSantis’ orders, some were able to be vaccinated in select FEMA sites on the weekend of March 6, according to Flocken.

After her success in getting the vaccine, Flocken reached out to colleagues from USF and HCC to tell them about the site. Later that day, HCC also sent out a communication stating its personnel ages 18 and older could get vaccinated at the federal site, according to Flocken.

To the surprise of some faculty who were able to get their vaccines at the FEMA site, many other higher education faculty members started to be turned away March 8 because they did not fit the governor’s order guidelines.

This was “maddening” for Scott Campbell, professor and undergraduate adviser at the College of Engineering, who was able to get his first shot at the FEMA site March 6 and is scheduled to receive his second dose later this month.

“It’s frustrating, it’s a complicated thing,” Campbell said. “Of course, you feel a little bit guilty that you were able to get a vaccination and your colleagues were not. So that’s something I struggle with, but mostly it’s probably more anger that the site retracted their willingness to give vaccines to faculty.”

HCC retracted its communication March 8, stating that all employees less than 65 years old would be turned away from the site. The conflicting messages regarding the eligibility has left some faculty members like Flocken wanting more clarity from USF, the county and the state.

“At least last week, when I went to the [vaccination] location, I was able to get vaccinated, and I think that people should be able to know that,” Flocken said.

“I also got an official communication from Hillsborough Community College about that since I happened to be one of their personnel this term, and I think that the 50,000 or so personnel at USF would also benefit from that kind of messaging, even if it’s unclear, even if it’s just a suggestion that it might be possible [to get the vaccine].”

Some higher education faculty members were also frustrated that only K-12 educators were included in the eligibility guidelines for the vaccine. The United Faculty of Florida issued a statement saying it was “appalled by the governor’s decision to exclude college and university workers from this mandate.”

Other faculty members, however, are satisfied with how the vaccination process has been handled. Timothy Boaz, president of the Faculty Senate and associate professor in the department of mental health, law and policy, was one of the first USF faculty members to receive the vaccine at the Tampa campus site. He is hopeful that before the university returns to fully in-person classes, any employee who wants to get the vaccine will get it.

“So it looks like right now the rollout of the vaccine will be such that any faculty member who wants to get vaccinated should be able to do so prior to those larger increases in how open we are and how much activity there is on campus,” Boaz said.

Flocken said the decision from DeSantis “does not make sense” because she believes college educators have very similar working conditions as those in K-12 schools.

“It seems like an arbitrary distinction,” Flocken said. “I understand that in public health decisions that when they’re facing a scarcity as they are, public officials have to make decisions about who gets it and who doesn’t.

“To me, opening it up to educators is a very important step for creating herd immunity and to allow students to go back into classrooms and for educators to meet them there with full confidence that the [most thorough] kinds of safety precautions are being undertaken.”

Including only K-12 educators is justifiable for other higher faculty members like Boaz, who said he feels the USF campus is a safe environment for now.

“I think there is some justification for prioritizing K-12 personnel ahead of university personnel,” Boaz said. “We are not going through a change in our circumstance where we’re having increases in contact with students during this semester. Whatever contact we were having is kind of continuing [right now].”

Through a partnership with Hillsborough County, USF has vaccinated faculty, staff and students in accordance with the state’s eligibility requirements, said Donna Petersen, College of Public Health dean and COVID-19 task force chair. She said the county is trying to figure out how to do it effectively, and in the meantime the university will follow the state’s guidelines.

“We just try to keep up with [the governor’s] directive,” Petersen said. “So we can only vaccinate within whatever his order allows. And we’re also depending on the supply of vaccines that we get that’s been sporadic.”

There’s no way to predict when USF will receive more vaccine supplies, according to Petersen. She said she understands the frustration some faculty members feel and said the institution is doing its best to vaccinate its community.

“Some people have tried and they’ve been successful, there’s others who tried and have not been successful, and we know it’s frustrating,” Petersen said.

“But we’re also very hopeful there are more and more doses scheduled to arrive in Florida, both Moderna, Pfizer and the new Johnson and Johnson vaccine. There are hundreds of thousands of doses coming into the state, so we’re hopeful that as the supply increases, then the system should calm down a little bit.”

Boaz encouraged other faculty members who want the vaccine and have not been able to get a dose to stay patient and asked them to consider that the distribution process has been evolving rapidly.

“I would note that we got to get started on our vaccinations earlier than some others, primarily because of the work of the folks in USF Health and their relationship with Tampa General Hospital,” Boaz said. “So that we’re not first in line every time is somewhat reasonable.

“That said, I know that’s not much consolation to those folks who haven’t been able to get vaccinated yet, but I would just encourage people to try and be patient. Keep practicing safe behaviors. And I think the vaccine will be available soon. So then we can all quit worrying about that part of it.”