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Santa Clara County sanctions Los Gatos hospital for letting teachers cut the line for vaccines

Photo: Getty Images
By Laila Weir - Published on January 25, 2021.

After Good Samaritan Hospital let Los Gatos teachers in an elite school district cut in line for COVID vaccination, Santa Clara County will withhold further vaccines from the hospital until it provides a plan to follow eligibility guidelines for the coveted shots.

That’s according to San Jose Spotlight, which broke a story that the hospital invited Los Gatos Union School District teachers and staff to get vaccinated ahead of the elderly residents and healthcare workers who are prioritized under the county’s plan. At least 67 educators got the shots ahead of those who work in healthcare or are over the age of 75, NBC Bay Area reports.

“Good Samaritan’s actions are inconsistent with both the letter and spirit of the State’s direction on vaccine eligibility,” the county’s COVID-19 testing officer, Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, wrote, according to the Spotlight. The educators were asked to say they were health workers when filling out appointment requests.

Under California’s phased vaccine rollout, the very first people to get the vaccine are healthcare workers and long-term care residents. In the second phase, individuals 65 and older and people “at risk of exposure at work” in sectors including education are technically eligible for the vaccine.

But Santa Clara County is short on vaccine supplies and, unlike some other Bay Area counties, most county health care providers are limiting vaccinations to the first-phase group plus residents 75 and up because they don’t have enough vaccines to go around. Indeed, the county’s website indicates that Good Samaritan Hospital was officially vaccinating only the very first group — healthcare workers.

The district, which the Spotlight notes is among the nation’s wealthiest, had raised money for meals for frontline health workers at hospitals including Good Samaritan earlier in the pandemic. This connection led to further criticism from Fenstersheib, the paper reports: “Good Samaritan’s decision to offer vaccination only to LGUSD staff also rewarded employees of a school district that had provided fundraising that assisted Good Samaritan employees, rather than prioritizing older educators or those from areas of the County with high prevalence of COVID-19.”

Good Samaritan Spokesperson Sarah Sherwood told NBC Bay Area that staff at its vaccine clinic invited Los Gatos teachers to get the vaccine because they had an excess of doses ready that would otherwise be wasted.

“We just wanted to make sure that the vaccine was being used, and that we didn't sit on vaccines,” Sherwood told the outlet. She said that on the day the educators were vaccinated, the hospital had 180 doses ready but just 115 people signed up to receive them.

The CEO of Good Samaritan Hospital similarly told the Spotlight that the hospital invited in the educators to “order to avoid wasting supply that was already thawed.”

The COVID vaccine must be preserved according to very demanding standards, and some providers in other areas have invited people outside of prioritized groups to get vaccinated when not enough eligible people scheduled appointments.

The Good Samaritan scandal highlights the tensions surrounding the desperately awaited vaccine, including a debate that increasingly weighs the needs of various vulnerable populations against one another.

With so many of the area’s public school districts (including LGUSD) in their third semester of closure, even as many private schools have held in-person classes, some child advocates and public health experts are pushing for public schools to reopen. They cite what they call a mental health crisis among children and adolescents.

Children’s Hospital of Oakland has seen more than a doubling of suicidal 10- to 17-year-olds showing up at the emergency room, Dr. Jeanne Noble of the UCSF Emergency Department noted in a recent report to another school district on the importance of reopening. Noble also said there’s been a doubling of teen overdoses requiring hospitalization, along with “significant increases in anxiety, depression [and] eating disorders.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that a surge in child suicides is pushing the country’s fifth-largest school district, in Las Vegas, to reopen.

And last month, a group of families sued the state of California for failing to “ensure basic educational equality or indeed any education at all” to vulnerable students, according to the Washington Post. The suit, filed in Alameda Superior Court, said the state was particularly failing Black, Latinx and low-income students. 

NBC Bay Area quotes two Los Gatos residents who felt that teachers should be receiving more priority in vaccination efforts. "For me, I think teachers are more important,” Archna Haylock told the outlet. “I think my parents can stay at home, and have enough control to sequester themselves."

Others disagree. “While my 75-year-old Vietnam veteran father and 71-year old mother with metastatic breast cancer wait at home for appointments, district leadership has found a back door for Los Gatos teachers to receive vaccinations,” R.J. Fisher Middle School teacher Jim Fredette said at a LGUSD school board meeting, the Spotlight reports.

Fredette called the offer for LGUSD staff to jump the vaccine line “unethical,” pointing out that educators had to claim they were health care workers when signing up for the vaccine, something that the hospital asked them to do, according to the Spotlight.

“We realized we were in error and do sincerely apologize for any confusion this may have caused to our community and our colleagues,” Good Samaritan CEO Joe DeSchryver told the Spotlight, adding that the hospital is conducting an investigation into what happened. “We are committed to working with the county on a plan to assure we have clarity and are adhering to the state and county guidelines on vaccine eligibility, which we have done so prior to this isolated incident.”

The hospital will still receive vaccines to provide second doses to people who received first doses.

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