Noting the urgency of the moment, Durham public school board members this week held a special meeting to weigh the pros and cons of requiring mandatory COVID vaccine shots for teachers and staff.

The DPS verdict?

The board members opted to develop a plan of action based on data that will indicate what percentage of school employees have already received the vaccine.

“If we have 70 percent of our staff vaccinated, which we don’t know yet, it may be just some incentive to be able to get another 10 percent to give it 80 percent,” DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said near the end of the meeting. “If we have about 50 percent vaccinated, that’s alarming.”

The word “urgent” was spoken more than a few times at Tuesday’s nearly two-hour board meeting.

“The board is clearly energized about vaccinating every employee who doesn’t have a medical or religious exemption,” DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth told the INDY on Wednesday. “We will be gathering information about the vaccination status of our employees to determine the best way to achieve that.”

Sudderth said once DPS learns of the actual percentage of unvaccinated employees the board will likely approve a vaccine mandate, owing to “the intense public health benefit of full vaccinations.” 

Mubenga said as much during Tuesday’s board meeting.

“We really need to do a better job of maybe mandating it because we really want to get it to 80 percent or higher,” he said.

Sudderth noted that the county school system’s teachers and staff were at the forefront of advocating for K-12 teachers to be among the priority groups to receive the vaccine.

“So we have little doubt that the vast majority of our employees support vaccines,” he said.

Sudderth pointed to one of the challenges of collecting vaccine data from DPS employees: a significant number of the school system’s teachers and staff received their vaccines outside of Durham County.

“We do not automatically receive information from the Durham County Department of Public Health about people who receive the vaccination in other counties,” said Sudderth, who added that DPS is also sensitive to the employees’ desire for medical privacy.

As previously reported by the INDY, Duke University officials recently announced that the private university’s faculty and staff must receive the vaccine by October 1 if they want to keep their jobs. And last month, the UNC system mandated that students enrolled at its 16 public universities get vaccinated or be tested weekly throughout the fall semester.

Prior to deciding to gather more information about the number of DPS employees who are unvaccinated, the school board members on Tuesday heard from David Weber with the ABC Science Collaborative. The program pairs scientists and physicians with school and community leaders to help them understand the most current and relevant information about COVID-19. 

The program also helps school leaders make informed decisions about returning to school using data from their own communities, according to the website. 

Weber, also a professor in the UNC School of Medicine, told the board that the “exponential rise” in new COVID cases is driven by the Delta variant.

He pointed to data that underscored the likelihood of unvaccinated people becoming sicker, struggling with serious disease, and even dying: He said 83 percent of UNC Hospital’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, 87 percent in the ICU are unvaccinated, and 100 percent of those who have died since the emergence of the Delta variant were unvaccinated.

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