‘They are essential to everyone’: Groups hopeful as child care workers considered for next phase of vaccine distribution

MADISON, Wis. – State health officials have yet to announce exactly which groups will be considered as frontline essential workers for the next round of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, but a state committee is recommending child care workers be included.

Tuesday morning, the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee (SDMAC) Vaccine Subcommittee met to finalize its recommendations for Phase 1B, which will be sent to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The experts’ recommendations include people older than 70, people living in congregate settings such as Family Care, jails or shelters, and frontline essential workers such as first responders, educators and child care workers with direct interaction with students.

“As the group has thought about populations, they’ve really focused on who is most vulnerable. Who is most at risk?” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said. “What essential services do we need to make sure are in place?”

Child care workers meet both those criteria, according to Jen Bailey, executive director of Reach Dane, which provides early childhood services to underserved children and many families struggling with poverty.

“They have to have child care to keep a roof over their heads,” Bailey said. “Child care workers really are essential workers.”

From the beginning of the pandemic, child care workers have needed to show up to work.

“They are essential to everyone,” said Jody Bartnick, executive director of the child care resource and referral agency Community Coordinated Child Care, Inc, or 4C. “They’re essential to grocery store workers, to health care professionals, to first responders, to teachers themselves.”

Caring for young children while parents work brings an inevitable risk.

“They’ve exposed themselves to the virus on multiple occasions,” Bartnick said.

“Social distancing is very challenging,” Bailey said. “Infants and toddlers need to be held and rocked and cuddled. We have staff that have to be in close proximity to small children all day long, so them being able to get this vaccine so they can care for children safely is huge.”

She said vaccinations on the horizon for child care workers is like the light at the end of a long tunnel.

“This will just bring, I think, so much peace of mind and to be able to keep people safe, both our staff and kids and parents,” Bailey said.

“We are thrilled that (child care workers) as well as other essential workers will be offered the opportunity to get vaccinated in Tier 1B,” said Kristine Omen Kaul, perinatal & child health navigator at Public Health Madison & Dane County. “We are coordinating with health care organizations for preparations for the next phase of vaccinations, following guidance from Wisconsin DHS. While many details about the coming phases of vaccine delivery have not yet been released, we all look forward to receiving more vaccines locally and providing them to our community.”

KinderCare, which has seven Madison-area child care and early education facilities, writes in a statement that they’re encouraging all teachers and staff to get the vaccine as soon as possible by offering them paid time off and ensuring the shots are free.

“Getting vaccinated is one of the best things we can do to help keep our teachers, families, and communities healthy and safe,” the statement read. “We’ll continue to follow our rigorous health and safety protocols to ensure that our center communities remain safe places for children and for their teachers.”

After a trying time, Bartnick said the upcoming vaccinations offer hope for the future.

“This is a group of folks that has gone above and beyond during this time,” Bartnick said. “That’s the important piece, that they’re recognized for the important work they do.”

Bailey said the pandemic reveals how essential their work has been all along.

“We’ve really learned our economy does not work without child care workers,” Bailey said. “I hope this might be a wakeup call for us in some ways.”

The SDMAC’s recommendations for Phase 1B are open for public comment and can be found here.