Alberta will start immunizing about 15,000 people who work at meat-processing facilities this week, reviving a recently scuttled plan that was designed to protect these vulnerable workers against the coronavirus.
Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the government intends to offer the vaccine to labourers at more than 100 meat-processing plants in the province. Some of the doses will be delivered at their work sites, and some through community clinics organized by Alberta Health Services.
Physicians have been urging governments across the country to focus their immunization efforts on work sites such as warehouses and meat-processing plants, which have been hammered by the pandemic. Cargill Ltd.’s operation in High River, Alta., for example, last spring bloomed into the largest workplace outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. Cargill was scheduled to host the first mass vaccine clinic in Canada last week, but the plan was cancelled at the last minute when shipments of the Moderna vaccine fell through.
“We now have the certainty of our [vaccine] allotments to be able to proceed,” Mr. Shandro told The Globe and Mail on Sunday. “We’re glad to [have] the ability to expand [the vaccine rollout] to these essential workers, given the heavy toll that the pandemic has had on them.”
Mr. Shandro said not all the rollout details have been worked out. He is unsure, for example, whether the workers will receive vaccines made by Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech. The time and location of the clinics are yet to be determined, he said. Further details are to be announced Monday.
Cargill last week said about 80 per cent of the 2,100 people who work at its slaughterhouse in High River signed up for its mass vaccination clinic. Annalee Coakley is one of the physicians who put together the Cargill plan, which included co-ordinating with organizations such as the Alberta International Medical Graduates Association. Now that the province has secured vaccines, Dr. Coakley believes she can get the Cargill clinic back on track this week.
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “I can’t wait to keep my word with the Cargill meat-packing plant.”
She and her colleagues also have plans to vaccinate workers at other meat-packing plants in the Calgary zone. Dr. Coakley and her colleagues last week wrote a letter to Mr. Shandro, lobbying for the government to relaunch the clinics.
“We are ready to go,” she said.
People who work at meat-packing plants tend to be racialized immigrants who face a number of challenges when accessing health care. They often work long shifts and may not have easy access to transportation. Some might struggle with computers, making it difficult to book a vaccine appointment through traditional channels. Language is also a major barrier. The mass vaccination clinics are designed to eliminate as many of these challenges as possible, by taking doses to their work sites and bringing in professionals who can speak their native languages.
Alberta, as of April 24, had delivered 1,398,673 doses of vaccine. People who are over 40 are eligible for the AstraZeneca vaccine. Shots made by Pfizer and Moderna are being routed toward health care professionals, people with underlying health conditions, Indigenous people over 50 and other citizens over 65.
Alberta’s oil sands camps are also facing numerous outbreaks of COVID-19. However, Mr. Shandro said that while Alberta recognizes there are outbreaks in these settings, the province does not plan to prioritize the workers in these communal camps for vaccine. Instead, Alberta will continue to focus on vaccinating the most vulnerable citizens first.
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