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Rafe Wright works on making a beverage as a patron places an order at Receiver Coffee in Charlottetown, PEI on March 23, 2021.

John Morris/John Morris

Prince Edward Island’s top doctor is urging service-sector employers to do whatever they can to help their young staff get vaccinated against COVID-19, including offering paid time off and even rides to pharmacies to get the jab.

Heather Morrison, PEI’s Chief Health Officer, says the province hopes to vaccinate as many as 10,000 people from the age of 18 to 29 who work in service industries in the coming weeks, as part of a plan to target those most likely to spread the virus.

John Brown’s Richmond Street Grille manager Ryan Thompson prepares the outdoor dome for the next guest in Charlottetown, PEI on March 23, 2021.

John Morris/John Morris

While other provinces have included young people in vaccination programs for front-line health care workers, PEI is the first Canadian province to target those under 30 who work in coffee shops, restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores. It’s a unique, and somewhat controversial, approach that means in some cases teenagers are being vaccinated before people in their 70s.

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But Dr. Morrison said the decision to focus on this group over older and more vulnerable residents was based on the island’s epidemiology in this pandemic. More than 60 per cent of all cases of the coronavirus in PEI have come from people under 30, and nearly 80 per cent of outbreaks here have been linked to this age group.

“Every person who gets vaccinated in our community helps all of us. We’re all impacted when there’s an outbreak, and every time there’s an outbreak among young people it can spread to other age groups,” Dr. Morrison said in an interview.

While more than 80 per cent of islanders over 80 have already received one dose, young people have been harder to persuade to register for a needle at one of the many pharmacies doling out AstraZeneca shots, she acknowledged.

It all makes places such as Receiver Coffee’s The Brass Shop, located in a historic brick building in downtown Charlottetown, ground zero in the campaign to get young people to help fight against COVID-19. Some workers here say they’re happy to be offered the vaccine, but are worried about losing income as a result.

Rafe Wright, a 23-year-old barista, said he’s heard about other people his age needing to take time off work to recover from the side effects of the vaccine.

“It’s tricky,” he explained. “I do want to get the vaccine. I’m just trying to find when it’s the right time that I can afford to take a couple days off because I’ll probably need to.”

Targeting those most likely to spread the virus makes a lot of sense as a strategy to reduce overall case numbers, said Gerald Evans, chair of the infectious-diseases program at Queen’s University in Kingston. People under 30 are typically at the most social point in their lives, and most likely to gather in groups, he said.

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While they’re less likely to require hospitalization if they’re infected, vaccinating young people helps protect older, more vulnerable adults, he said.

“The biggest generator of new cases tends to be young adults,” Dr. Evans said. “While they may not be as badly affected in terms of severe outcomes as older people, they’re the amplifiers of the virus within the community.”

There’s growing evidence that vaccines can help slow transmission, he said. With only 150 cases since the pandemic began, and zero deaths, PEI also has the luxury other provinces don’t of being able to try new strategies in its vaccination fight, he added.

“Targeting this group could be incredibly important,” Dr. Evans said. “When you vaccinate an 18-year-old, you’re doing it to protect the entire community. When you vaccinate a 70-year-old, you’re doing it primarily to protect them.”

Chelsea Woodard, a young server who has been vaccinated, brings food to patrons at Red Water Restaurant in Charlottetown, PEI on March 23, 2021.

John Morris/John Morris

Dr. Morrison, the Chief Health Officer, points out the province only began vaccinating people under 30 after it targeted long-term care homes, health care workers and those most at risk.

“We’re trying to reassure the people who live in PEI there’s going to be enough vaccines for everyone,” she said.

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PEI, which has doled out more than 18,000 doses to date, is also actively vaccinating older adults, with those over 65 able to book appointments for a needle starting next week. Those over 60 with underlying health conditions are being vaccinated now.

Bailey Nicole Drummond, a 25-year-old waitress at Maid Marian’s Diner, a family restaurant in Charlottetown, said she was anxious about a recent cluster of cases on the island and jumped at the opportunity to get her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

She said some people have complained that those under 30 are being prioritized, but she argued it makes sense given the statistics around who’s getting the virus.

“Young people in this industry are getting vaccinated because of the cases we’ve had on the island and most of them were in this age group,” she said. “People were being negative toward me and my other young co-workers because of it and making their opinions about it clear.”

Dr. Morrison said she’s concerned that cases of COVID-19 continue to climb among young people across the country. It’s critical that service-sector workers under 30 are encouraged by their managers to get vaccinated, and be forgiven if they need to miss some work as a result.

Employers should also offer to drive staff to vaccination appointments if transportation is an issue, she added.

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“It’s really important there aren’t any barriers. We need to make sure employers are supporting young people who want to be vaccinated,” Dr. Morrison said.

Jason Alward, president of the New Democratic Party of PEI and a regular customer at Charlottetown’s downtown coffee shops, agrees with the government’s plan to prioritize younger employees. He said some understanding and patience are needed as people wait their turn for the vaccine.

“We have to remember that this is one of the largest immunizations in our history. Service workers have been amazing on the front line of this pandemic and deserve to be safe in their work,” said Mr. Alward, 46. “No one is being forgotten.”

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