Emails Shed New Light on South Bay School District Vaccine Scandal

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Emails obtained by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit provide more insight into how an affluent South Bay school district was able to vaccinate some of its staff more than a month before they were eligible under county guidelines.

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The emails, obtained under the California Public Records Act, show how the vaccines were initially offered to Los Gatos Union School District by Good Samaritan Hospital, and that superintendent Paul Johnson intentionally downplayed the district’s recent fundraising efforts for hospital staff because of concerns over messaging.

NBC Bay Area is still waiting on additional records, and some emails were withheld by the district, but here’s what we know so far:

Just before 7:30 am on Jan. 21, an anesthesiologist affiliated with Good Samaritan Hospital named Richard Briones sent an email to LGUSD Superintendent Paul Johnson and Good Samaritan Chief Operating Officer Gary Purushotham. Briones, records show, appears to share a home with LGUSD Communications Coordinator Karen Briones, who is also copied on the email.

“A quick reintroduction to you both as it has been a while since our collaborative work on the Feed our Heroes project,” Briones wrote. “Gary, I shared news surrounding access to the COVID vaccine for the community’s frontline education staff with Paul yesterday evening. I forwarded the link you sent me to him this morning.”

The Feed our Heroes project was a fundraising effort the district participated in to raise money that went towards buying meals for healthcare workers at Good Samaritan and El Camino hospitals.

Purushotham soon writes back saying he needed to check if “The tier was released before you forward any communication.”

Five minutes later, Purushotham writes, “You are good to go.”

Except that information was incorrect. Educators, part of Phase 1B in the state’s vaccine rollout, aren’t scheduled to be eligible to get their shots until Feb. 28 in Santa Clara County, according to the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health.

As San Jose Spotlight first reported, Johnson emailed his staff later that day telling them they could get vaccinated through Good Samaritan as thanks for their work on the Feed our Heroes program.

“If you recall, last year at the beginning of the pandemic, we launched the “Feed our Heroes” program to raise funds to provide frontline workers meals at Good Sam and El Camino Hospitals,” Johnson wrote school staff. “I received word last night that Good Sam would like to offer vaccines to our LGUSD staff. They mentioned that our kindness last year was not forgotten and how much they appreciated it.”

Johnson instructed staff to click the button on the website indicating they were healthcare workers, which required LGUSD employees to attest that under the penalty of perjury.

Later that evening, Johnson wrote an email to Purushotham regarding messaging concerns about tying vaccines for school staff to the Feed our Heroes fundraiser.

“I wanted to mention that Karen Briones shared your concerns about messaging,” Johnson wrote. “At tonight’s board meeting we made sure to not tie Feed our Heroes to the vaccines. I did express appreciation for Good Sam’s efforts in helping our educators get vaccinated.”

County health officials withheld further vaccines from Good Samaritan until it could ensure it would follow the county guidelines. The hospital said it closed its vaccination clinic and has disciplined its COO.

Neither Karen nor Richard Briones responded to NBC Bay Area’s request for comment.

Superintendent Johnson said he was too busy planning to re-open schools to conduct an interview, but re-sent a written statement from several weeks ago, which you can read here.

NBC Bay Area is still waiting on additional email records and we will update our story as we learn more.

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