Italy teachers balk at AstraZeneca vaccine plans

Italy’s main teachers' union is balking at plans for educators under age 55 to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine rather than jabs it believes provide better protection

ROME -- Italy’s main teachers' union is balking at plans for educators under age 55 to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine rather than jabs it believes provide better protection, evidence that lobbying groups are vying to get specific shots as the virus and its variants spread across Europe.

To date, Italy has identified one person who tested positive with the variant from South Africa who arrived on a flight from the continent, though it has had more cases of the variants identified in Britain and Brazil. But on Monday, the Austrian government issued a warning against travel to its Tyrol province, which borders northern Italy, after 293 infections of the variant identified in South Africa were confirmed there.

Northern Italy has been the hardest-hit part of the country ever since the first locally transmitted case was confirmed on Feb. 21 in Lombardy and became Europe's one-time epicenter. While infections nationwide have held steady for several weeks — around 8,000 new confirmed cases were reported Monday and 307 new deaths — northern regions continue to see the highest numbers of infections and deaths. With more than 90,000 dead, Italy has the second-highest confirmed COVID-19 death toll in Europe after Britain.

Italy's virus czar, Domenico Arcuri, has defended the decision to direct the AstraZeneca vaccines to younger workers, saying the dual aim of Italy's campaign is to reduce mortality overall among the elderly who are most at risk of fatal complications, and reduce the spread of the virus among younger people.

“We have a new weapon that allows us to amplify the categories to vaccinate," Arcuri told reporters Friday.

Originally, Italy’s national vaccine plan prioritized health care workers and residents of nursing homes with the first doses of vaccines that arrived, followed by people over age 80.

But the new “preferential use” designation for AstraZeneca shots means a parallel campaign begins this week for under-55 teachers, law enforcement personnel, armed forces, prisoners and prison officials as well as essential workers and residents of communities.

To date, Italy has administered more than 2.5 million doses. On Monday in Rome, the first doses for people over age 80 and not living in nursing homes got underway at local hospitals.

“I have seven grandchildren waiting for a hug,” a pleased Abramo Abrusca said as he got his Pfizer shot.