Library Associations, Agencies, Workers Advocate for Early Vaccination Priority

When the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out in mid-December 2020, their distribution was immediately complicated by a shortage of doses and widespread uncertainty about who would be given priority. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued suggested guidelines for phased allocation. When it was not yet clear who would be next, many library workers, leaders, and associations began advocating for public facing library workers to be vaccinated as soon as feasible.

Bottles of COVID vaccine doses lined upWhen the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out in mid-December 2020, their distribution was immediately complicated by a shortage of doses and widespread uncertainty about who would be given priority. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued suggested guidelines for phased allocation, recommending that healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents receive the first round of doses in Phase 1a. When it was not yet clear who would be next, many library workers, leaders, and associations began advocating for public facing library workers to be vaccinated as soon as feasible.

The latest update from the CDC suggests that Phase 1b should comprise those over 75 years old and non–health care frontline essential workers, such as educators, first responders, public transit workers, and corrections workers; and Phase 1c include persons aged 65–74 years, those aged 16–64 with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers not included in Phase 1b, including librarians. However, because the CDC’s guidelines are recommendations only, vaccine protocols differ among states and municipalities, and there is a high degree of confusion as to who can anticipate getting an appointment, or when. In addition to urging states that have not prioritized library workers to do so, some advocates are also recommending that patron-facing library staff be moved to Phase 1b.

Unlike teachers—but similar to medical or transit workers—library staff interact with a large cross-section of the general public. As libraries remain open or reopen and increase in-person services, workers may find themselves at greater risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus as well as potentially infecting patrons.

And as is the case for many other frontline workers, those in non-administrative library positions often feel as though their concerns are not being heard by their directors or boards. Library staff are “forced to choose between helping and staying safe,” tweeted academic library director and library labor advocate Callan Bignoli.

 

ADVOCACY AT EVERY LEVEL

In late December 2020, Library PAC EveryLibrary expressed concern about the CDC’s guidance, and put out a call on its website for state and local health officials to prioritize librarians and library workers in vaccine distribution plans. EveryLibrary’s website also includes recommendations for library leaders to help support the public health community’s vaccination education campaigns.

At the recent American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter virtual meeting, a Council resolution calling for the CDC to classify library workers who have direct contact with the public as 1b essential workers was debated, with some stating that this needed to be addressed at a state—rather than national—level, and others concerned that such a resolution could be used as an argument against closing libraries when needed. A final resolution, which passed with 149 yea votes, contained general language calling for library workers to be vaccinated as soon as possible and encouraging libraries to advocate for this at state and local levels and share their efforts. ALA has posted a Vaccine Information page with links to the CDC and individual state advocacy efforts.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) interim list of essential worker categories, posted on January 19, listed elementary and secondary schools and academic institutions in Phase 1b, and libraries and archives in Phase 1c. But the lack of clarity about where school and academic librarians fall stands to create confusion at state and local levels, stated a written comment from Jennie Stapp, president of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA), to the CDC ACIP. The comment, submitted to the agency for its January 27 meeting, requested clarification of librarians’ placement in the ACIP-recommended vaccine allocation, and asked that librarians—whether in school, public, or academic settings—be included in Phase 1b.

Although the ultimate call will continue to lie with states and municipalities, filing a letter with the CDC is an important advocacy step, said COSLA Executive Director Timothy Cherubini. “Even though the decisions are most often made at the local level, when the CDC puts out something it could become the basis for future decisions,” he told LJ. In COSLA’s conversations with various state library agencies, “it was clear that at the state Department of Public Health levels they were looking at what had been put out and reaching different conclusions.”

An informal COSLA poll indicated that most state libraries had been reaching out for clarification in recent months, said Cherubini. “State librarians are in a unique position because they are part of state government” and have good contacts among elected officials and agencies, he noted. “That can potentially open some doors or carry a different kind of weight. It may not necessarily be better doors or better weight than what a local official could bring to bear, but at least at the state level it’s kind of working from inside.”

 

PUTTING THE PRESSURE ON LOCALLY

Ongoing state efforts have been ramping up over the past few weeks.

The New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) has requested that the state include public library workers in its 1b category along with police officers, firefighters, individuals 65 and older, and those aged 16–64 with high-risk medical conditions. As of the end of January, the state’s COVID-19 currently lists library workers in category 1c, but the supply of vaccines remains inadequate even for those who are currently eligible in phases 1a and 1b—health care personnel, long-term care residents and staff, first responders, and high-risk individuals. NJLA is working with state deputy chief of staff of outreach Deborah Cornavaca, who will convey the request to the New Jersey Department of Health.

Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), has been working to convince the state Department of Health to add library workers to phase 1b as essential government employees. According to a director’s report presented to the CALS board of trustees, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s staff liaison to the Health Department has agreed and is “advocating for our staff to be included when the details are fleshed out.” The Arkansas Library Association is also working to get clarification from the Health Department.

The County Health Department of Macomb County, MI, has included the Clinton-Macomb Public Library staff in the 1b essential worker category for receiving vaccines, along with all municipal employees who live or work in Macomb County. Director Larry Neal has worked to build a strong relationship with the department, he told LJ, and has been an advocate library staff to be considered as essential workers. “I approached [the County Health Department] several years ago after I attended a disaster preparedness program, and we are now part of a closed point of dispensing program in the case of a community emergency,” he said. “We even went through an exercise as the point of distribution for first responders”—although library participation as part of the vaccine distribution has not been necessary so far.

Bignoli, who works in Massachusetts, was frustrated with efforts on behalf of librarians at the state level, so in January she launched a Change.org petition urging Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to vaccinate the state’s library workers in the next phase of the vaccine rollout. It stated, in part, “Libraries around the country have taken the difficult but necessary action of limiting services and increasing safety measures for the sake of broader community health. That said, no safety measure would be as effective as vaccinating library workers against COVID-19 as quickly as possible. It will not only significantly reduce their risk of their own infection, but that of community spread as well.”

The Public Library of Brookline Board of Library Trustees sent a letter to the Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services advocating for library workers to be added to the same vaccine cohort as teachers. “Once schools are back up and running in a more normal fashion, there will be insurmountable pressure to open libraries,” said Director Sara Slymon. “In Brookline, we  are eager to get back to serving our patrons face to face, in order to help minimize the social, economic, educational, and racial inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.” The Brookline board sent their letter to all the other boards in Massachusetts as well, in hopes of building momentum.

“I felt like asking for librarians to be vaccinated in Phase 2 would be a fair ask,” Bignoli told LJ. While she has heard concern that adding another category of workers into the next rollout might take away vaccines from those who need them more, “I just don’t agree that that’s the case, at least for the schedule that we’re asking for in Massachusetts,” she said. “Phase 2 here, that’s for educators, public transportation drivers, folks like that. I don’t think that librarians have any less exposure to the public than those people do. I’m definitely not saying that we should get it before…essential workers.… But I do think it makes sense to consider us in the same bracket as educators.”

As of press time, Massachusetts was averaging more than 3,400 cases a day—down by more than a third from two weeks earlier; nearly 1,800 Massachusetts library workers have signed the petition to date. Even if it doesn’t have the desired effect before the Phase 2 vaccinations are administered, said Bignoli, “Every time it gets shared and signed is a little bit of a victory. Maybe we don’t necessarily wind up getting exactly what we want in the end, but we’re still pushing the issue out into the world so people understand it.”

 

HELPFUL—AND CAREFUL—WORDING

In Illinois, libraries are not explicitly mentioned in the state’s Department of Public Health (DPH) guidelines, so the Illinois Library Association (ILA) has focused its advocacy at the county level, and has developed a template for outreach letters to departments where Phase 1b or 1c determinations are being made.

ILA has taken a two-pronged approach, said Executive Director Diane Foote. The association wrote a letter to DPH itself, and also provided copies for the Illinois State Library to send—public health departments are overwhelmed right now, she noted, and advised sending the same letter through a few different channels to make sure it reaches its target. In addition to recommending that DPH include libraries in its eligibility guidelines for the first phases of vaccine distribution—1b or 1c—it has also encouraged libraries to reach out to their local county departments of public health, as they control the actual rollout.

Second, ILA has provided a template for individual libraries to use. “It’s one thing to say we encourage our libraries to contact their county department of public health, but what are they supposed to say?” Foote asked. “We can provide a template, we can provide a tool, that makes their local advocacy easier.” The template provides space for libraries to list their services, how many people come through the door in a typical year, and examples of the demands for in-person public services in the community.

This advocacy comes with a caveat, however. “We do want to be careful with the state-level advocacy, because if we as an association came out and said, ‘Libraries are essential, and therefore we need the vaccine,’ we run the risk of being told by the state that all libraries in the state must be fully open,” Foote told LJ—and not all libraries in Illinois are ready to open for in-person services now. “In our letter we’ve used the word vital, that libraries provide vital service in our communities. We stayed away from the e-word, essential, because that seems to have become a lightning rod of a term.”

At the same time, ILA’s letter points out all the services libraries offer their communities—and notes that any library workers who are providing in-person services “really need to be vaccinated—not only for the sake of the safety of library staff and their families, but to prevent the library from becoming a superspreader.”

ILA also monitors the results of these advocacy efforts, and has seen some success—at least 10 out of the state’s 102 counties have reported library workers being officially included in phases 1b or 1c, and there may be more that haven’t gotten in touch with the association yet. On February 8, Chicago health commissioners stated that they would not add librarians to the essential worker category, citing the low number of cases among Chicago library workers. However, 49th Ward Alderman Maria Hadden noted that most COVID-positive cases among Chicago Public Library staff were found in front-facing workers.

 

PLAYING THE LONG GAME

Some local efforts have been hampered by a lack of available vaccines. Patty Wong, city librarian at the Santa Monica Public Library (SMPL), CA, told LJ that “at SMPL we are advocating with our local leadership in the city to recognize library staff as front line workers, but it’s difficult because we don’t even have the deployment within L.A. County to cover the entire needs for essential workers and health care professionals.” Despite her advocacy work, Wong is still unsure whether her staff will qualify earlier than Phase 1c.

But the work being done holds implications beyond library workers achieving early priority for vaccines. “The end goal is to get that higher prioritization,” said COSLA’s Cherubini. Even in places where libraries are still closed to the public, he added, if workers have been vaccinated they will be prepared when their library gets the green light to reopen. “Having this vaccination question sorted out, and sorted out in a way that prioritizes librarians, will help us do that much more quickly than if things are just left to chance, or widely varying interpretations, as they are now.”

“We often have seen in the last year that libraries don’t get included in any of the state mandates or regulations,” Bignoli pointed out. Awareness of the public-facing aspect of library work at the state official level, she said, “gives us sort of a double-edged win here if we are successful in doing this. Not only does it get us vaccinated faster, but it also helps get us visibility that we don’t necessarily have in these conversations right now.”

Cherubini advises library workers, leaders, and boards to keep the advocacy work going, even if it involves reiterating points that have been made many times during the pandemic—”reminding people of the level of contact that librarians have and that the services that libraries provide are unique within the community, that they reach parts of the community that may otherwise be part to reach.”

“This would be an ideal time for ALA to return to the basics and to ensure that we are recognized as a profession,” agreed Nancy Pack, director of the Alabama Public Library Service. “I have noticed that most librarians have to educate/inform the lay persons, appointed library boards, mayors, judges, legislators, and others.”

At the local level, library workers should find out what the vaccination schedule is in their state, said Bignoli, and figure out where their advocacy efforts can do the most good—and take advantage of existing templates for letters to local health departments. Library associations and consortia should also step up their efforts, she added, whether they feel they will be successful or not. That way, “you show your members that you actually care about their safety, and you give them a reason to be a member of your association.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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