Library Leaders Advocate for Systemwide Staff Vaccination

As early as December 2020, many were advocating for library workers to be included in early distribution categories. Even in the absence of broad recategorization, however, some library leaders have effectively lobbied to have staff across their entire systems vaccinated. Using a range of strategies, they have ensured that their state or local health department officials understand that library workers fill essential, public-facing roles, and are cared for accordingly.

woman in glasses and mask holding sign reading
Maumelle Branch Library employee Kathy Gunter received her vaccine at the CALS Main Library's vaccination clinic.
Photo credit: Amanda Ferguson

As the COVID-19 vaccine continues to roll out across the country, the categories of those who are eligible has been anything but consistent. At press time, all members of the general public 16 and older were eligible for vaccination in Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. In other states, distribution is still determined by age, occupation, and/or underlying health conditions.

As early as December 2020, many were advocating for library workers to be included in early distribution categories. Even in the absence of broad recategorization, however, some library leaders have effectively lobbied to have staff across their entire systems vaccinated. Using a range of strategies, they have ensured that their state or local health department officials understand that library workers fill essential, public-facing roles, and are cared for accordingly.

 

UNDER THE CHILDCARE UMBRELLA IN CALIFORNIA

Californians over the age of 50 will be eligible for vaccination on April 1, and all residents 16 or older will be able to sign up on April 15—the state plans to distribute an estimated three million doses during the second half of April, according to CA.gov.

Los Angeles county, with a projected 2021 population of nearly 10 million, has had the highest rates of infection and death in the state. Vaccines were slow to roll out at the beginning, said Patty Wong, city librarian at Santa Monica Public Library (and 2021–22 president-elect of the American Library Association), moving into a tiered distribution of Phase 1B—including those over 65 and those who work in education and childcare—at the end of February. Because L.A. County Librarian Skye Patrick had access to County Department of Public Health director Barbara Ferrer, Wong encouraged her to meet with Ferrer and advocate for librarians and staff in the county who worked with students and children as eligible within Phase 1B, tier 1.

On February 27, Wong told LJ, Patrick called her, perplexed, wondering why Wong wasn’t excited about the news she had shared. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She forgot to hit the send button.” The news was that Patrick had convinced Ferrer to recognize all library staff who work in the education and childcare sectors as eligible for the vaccine as of February 28, noting “They now agree that many of our frontline staff serving youth would count as informal childcare.”

Once Patrick shared Ferrer’s letter with the local Emergency Operations Center (EOC) team, they were reluctant “to pit one group of staff against another in terms of the triage,” explained Wong. “So we waited a little bit.” A copy also reached State Librarian Greg Lucas, who persuaded the California Department of Public Health to recognize that all library staff “in the direct occupational service of students” qualified as of March 8. On March 11, Lucas emailed library directors across the county to tell them, noting that working with students “is something that of course happens in all libraries”—effectively opening up eligibility to all library staff and workers across the board.

“I don’t think anyone would disagree that whether it’s your direct duty or not, at some point or another, everything that you do [in the library] is going to benefit either students or children and their families, or young people,” Wong said. “All of the things that we place online, or direct service to the schools that are reopening now, or requests for research, information from teachers—that is all part of the work we’re doing.” Because Lucas “got the language to be so broad, that opened the door,” added Wong. “That convinced all the people that needed to be convinced.”

So far, said Wong, the rollout to library employees has gone smoothly, and she hasn’t heard of any challenges to anyone presenting a library ID badge—including part-time workers who may not have health care coverage. “We just said, everybody go get it.”

 

“IGNORE CHAIN OF COMMAND”

Just under 400 miles north of L.A. County, Sacramento Public Library (SPL) Director Rivkah Sass took matters into her own hands at the same time that Lucas was working on securing Tier 1 status for library workers. “For me it was a lesson in ‘ignore chain of command,’” she said.

Early this year, after getting no response from a high-level county executive who had told her to email him, she was listening to Sacramento County Public Health Director Dr. Olivia Kasirye, who presents an online weekly community update on COVID. “And I thought, you know what? I’m just going to email her,” Sass told LJ. “I said, OK, what’s the story? Twenty of our 28 locations are open. We’re providing computer appointments. People can come in and browse.”

Kasirye responded in 15 minutes, agreeing that library staff should be considered educators, and “that’s all it took,” said Sass. She and Kasirye put together a package for staff that included a PDF of their email exchange, an employment verification letter, and some guidance in case they were challenged when on their eligibility. Workers were advised to schedule an appointment at local fairground Cal Expo, which had been alerted that library staff was in the priority group, and advised, “If anyone at the site gives you a problem, show them the email and clearly state, ‘I am a frontline worker providing educational support to the citizens of Sacramento County. Here is an email from Dr. Kasirye…that verifies my status.’ Be assertive. Please don’t take no for an answer. I know it’s hard, but speak with confidence.” Sass even included her phone number in case anyone was challenged, but no one has been asked for documentation yet.

Five days after she succeeded in getting that approval, Lucas sent his letter out to state library workers. But those five days were important to the people who could get online and make appointments, Sass noted. “This last year has been so stressful for everyone, and people have been so worried. It felt like such a small thing if it helped people not be as worried.”

 

ALREADY AT THE TABLE IN NY STATE

For Christian Zabriskie, executive director of the Onondaga County Public Library (OCPL) system in New York State, making sure workers at the system’s 32 branches were eligible for vaccines wasn’t a matter of getting a seat at the county government table—the library was already there. OCPL was involved in the local public health response from the pandemic’s beginnings, he told LJ. More than half of county staff pivoted to work for the health department at some point over the past year, with many of Zabriskie’s library workers taking on roles as contact tracers and running rapid testing programs at schools and nursing homes. Library locations themselves have served as testing sites as needed.

Many of those workers had been furloughed in 2020 as OCPL grappled with budget cuts. When COVID-19 surges hit the region throughout the fall and winter, the county ran low on contact tracers and a number of employees chose to take the take the training and work through their furloughs (they will be returning to their positions at the library in April). Many of those who remained employed volunteered to serve as testers. “A lot of them were my immediate leadership team,” said Zabriskie. “I did it as well. And when [county government] looked out to see who else is in the trenches, there we were.”

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon “had a real clarity of vision on this,” noted Zabriskie, and has been instrumental in getting as many residents as possible vaccinated quickly. “And when the head of the health department was seeing my people in [the library], and our doors were open, and she saw what we were doing, she went back to her office, and then the next thing you know, a decision had come down that we could all get vaccinated the next day. It was amazing.”

When county officials gave OCPL the green light, he added, “not only did they give the okay for my staff—city of Syracuse library workers—to get the vaccine, but they actually opened it up and all library workers in the county were given access to the vaccine.”

 

PERSISTENCE PAYS IN ARKANSAS

At his weekly COVID-19 briefing on March 30, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted the state’s mask mandate and announced that all residents over 16 could sign up for a vaccine—one of the last states to set a timeline for universal adult eligibility. As of mid-March, however, an estimated one-third of Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) full- and part-time staff had received theirs. According to Executive Director Nate Coulter, 55 staff members received their first dose at an in-house clinic at the Main Library, with 22 more getting their vaccines a week later and some visiting a pharmacy on their own.

Many parts of the state have seen low compliance with public health recommendations, said Coulter. CALS partially reopened in June 2020 and was almost back to full open hours by September. Despite not providing in-person programming or holding meetings, and limits on user capacity—“we are doing what we can to accept the local mores and expectations of being ‘open,’ and defining open in a way that has been very conservative”—Coulter still needed to keep staff protected.

The library was highly visible in the community throughout much of the pandemic, handing out meals, offering limited computer access, making photocopies of documents so that people could apply for utility subsidies. But “it was my concern,” said Coulter, “that maybe, because we’re such a relatively small part of the overall fabric of important, essential workers, people had kind of lost track of library staff.”

Having to interact with the public could be hard on employees’ anxiety levels, he told LJ, but also enabled him to successfully advocate for vaccination priority for everyone in the system. “In January, as it became more and more apparent that we were getting closer to having access to vaccines at a level that would meet the demand, I started talking to state legislators, asking them to talk to the governor’s office and ask for an audience with the governor’s liaison to the health department,” Coulter said. “I was promptly—and I guess happily—told that wasn’t necessary, that they were on board with trying to advocate for library workers in Arkansas to be moved into category 1B,” the tier then beginning to receive vaccinations.

Still, it took more legwork on Coulter’s part to make that agreement into a reality for CALS workers. “I think it was one of those somewhat painful reminders that, although we obviously are aware of what we do and other libraries do, a lot of times people who are not working in the library, or directly served by the library every day, can forget that we’re out here.”

With slightly more than 10 percent of Arkansas’s 2,500 public library employees, “We’re not a big number of people, but we were doing very important work,” Coulter told LJ. “That was kind of the initial thought process. I kept up communication with people in the governor’s office and at the State Department of Health, and kept reminding them that we were still out here and still needed access to the vaccine.” By the beginning of March, library workers were explicitly added to the list of those eligible for vaccines.

In a Republican majority state where some residents are still reluctant to be vaccinated—a late February CBS News poll found 34 percent of Republicans say they will not be vaccinated against the coronavirus—Coulter hopes to encourage staff to do so, although he can’t mandate it. While they were able to get their shots at the library, CALS also offered workers a full day’s worth of PTO—”to give people who were on the fence a little more incentive”—for those who wanted to get vaccinated.

 

ENCOURAGEMENT FOR ALL

Even as more states open up appointments, there are still significant waits to qualify in many places, with library workers worried about facing patrons with no assurance of their vaccination status. California may have the state librarian on its side, but, says Wong, advocacy can start at the local level as well—and that may be more effective than starting at the top. “Whatever jurisdiction your public health director is in, they can make some of those changes because it is definitely a local issue,” added Wong. “Find out where the decision-making point is. Try to collaborate as systems, as library agencies, so that there’s power in numbers.”

Those decision-makers can often cut out a lot of red tape and effort, and—taking a page from Sass’s playbook—it’s worth figuring out who can make things happen. “I’m just mad at myself that I waited to hear back from the person who supposedly was the decision maker,” she said.

Be assertive, said Sass—and be visible, as well, added Zabriskie. “We were just always part of the conversation,” Zabriskie said. “Our county government saw us as part of the solution because we really embedded ourselves into the problem, and just made sure that we were visible and being part of that larger response.” That decision goes both ways, he noted. “We’ve been allowed to be present, which I think is really great leadership from our county government. They’ve seen what we could accomplish by being there, and have allowed us to be at the table and contribute.”

While depending on the idea of library staff as essential workers has been a double-edged sword—it was used to postpone building closures during early days of the pandemic, and to accelerate reopening in unsafe conditions—libraries’ visibility serving their communities can now serve as a lever to advocate for their workers’ being given vaccine priority. “Making that case seemed to be, in some ways, easier than I thought it might be,” said Coulter. “I think once people were made aware of what we were doing, it was an easy thing for them to connect—that these are important parts of the economy and parts of the community’s response.”

For those seeking to advocate for systemwide staff vaccines, Coulter recommends consistently highlighting the work the library does to state leaders and local, county, and state health department officials. “I’m hopeful, too,” he said, “that as the supply of vaccines continues to ramp up, it’s an easier decision for policymakers and health departments to broaden that aperture on the access.”

Zabriskie also believes that being visibly involved in the pandemic response helped forestall any pushback from the public about library workers being given priority. “When the time came that the choice was made that we were eligible, it made sense to people.”

OCPL will remain embedded in county work going forward—the library has a standing committee on public health now, and plans to look at some of the issues of health, poverty, and racial disparity that arose during the pandemic. “This is really spurring us on to another level of work that I think we would have gotten to, but maybe in a different direction, and probably over more time,” said Zabriskie. “I’m ready to ready to get back in and start addressing some of this stuff, addressing it in a more significant way.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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