At the Broadbent Arena coronavirus vaccination site, Indian Trail Elementary School nurse Bobbie Lester sat in a chair with her sleeve rolled up, and chit-chatted with another nurse who injected the coronavirus vaccine into Lester’s upper arm.
Lester was the very first JCPS school nurse to receive the vaccine.
The city vaccinated 32 JCPS nurses at Broadbent Friday, the first group of JCPS employees to receive the immunization. As healthcare workers, school nurses are in the Phase 1a group in Kentucky’s vaccine rollout. Teachers and other K-12 employees are in the next group, Phase 1b, along with people over age 70 and first responders. Officials are hoping to begin those vaccines in late January or early February.
Lester said she wanted to get the vaccine to show her colleagues it was safe, and so she can get back to seeing kids in person.
“I want to do my part, I want to go back to work. I want the children back in the classroom,” she said.
Lester is among about 13,000 JCPS employees who have signed up to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio said he believes vaccinating staff is the best hope for getting back to in-person learning. He plans to open schools grade by grade, with the earliest grades first. The number of grades that will be opened, and the timing, will depend on how many vaccines the city receives, and when.
The vaccine is not mandatory, and around 6,000 JCPS employees and contractors haven’t signed up. 1,900 employees declined the vaccine, and about 4,000 did not respond to the vaccine survey.
Amber Ladd is the family resource coordinator for Mill Creek Elementary Leadership Academy. And like some other teachers and employees, the newness of the vaccine makes her nervous about it.
“I would support it once it’s been out on the market a little longer,” she said. “But I’m not comfortable with just jumping into being one of the first hundreds of thousands of people to get this vaccination.”
The CDC and the FDA say the vaccine is safe for almost all adults, with a few exceptions for people who are allergic to the vaccine ingredients. Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness doctor SarahBeth Hartlage said just because this vaccine was developed faster than any before it, doesn’t mean it’s less safe.
“The vaccine development process was accelerated, but no steps were skipped,” she said.
Hartlage said extra funding and resources helped fast-track the vaccine development.
“Imagine if you were trying to do your work, and every form you submitted was immediately answered, and every email you sent was immediately responded to,” she said.
But information from public health officials is still not convincing to some, especially because of the government’s history of medical experiments on Black and Latinx people, and because of racism in the medical establishment.
Ladd says her identity as a Black woman may be one reason she’s so hesitant to get the vaccine.
“I do feel like there is history that goes into play,” she said.
Ladd pointed to a record of experimentation on Black people by the government, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis study.
“We don’t have a very positive history when it comes to that,” she said.
Lester, who is also Black, said at first, she had concerns about the vaccine too.
“‘No, no, no! I’m not having it! They made it too quick!’ — That’s what I’ve said up until two weeks ago,” she said.
Then Lester noticed that most of her Black friends, family and coworkers had similar reservations. That made her worry about more Black people getting the coronavirus. Black people are already being hit disproportionately by the deadly disease.
“And I said, someone has got to reach them. Someone has got to tell them it’s ok to take it,” she said.
She said her decision has already changed some of her coworkers’ minds. Others she’s still working on.
“They said ‘we going to check on you the whole weekend starting after you take this shot. Your phone gonna be blowed up!’“ Lester said.
“And I said, check on me…if that’s the incentive that you need to take it when your turn come, then you step up, and you take it.”
Lester was monitored for 15 minutes after her injection, and did not have any adverse reaction. She’s looking forward to seeing her students again, in person.