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Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about phase two in B.C.'s COVID-19 immunization plan as Premier John Horgan and Minister Arian Dix look on during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on March 1, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia is using its first 60,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to immunize workers living or toiling together in close quarters, with a focus on industries deemed at high risk of more outbreaks such as food processing, mining, logging and farming.

Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, said at a Monday pandemic briefing this drug started to be given out last week to battle community outbreaks and data show these industries are currently the riskiest. People living together in remote camps at mines or logging sites or sleeping in company quarters at places such as nurseries or greenhouses will also be offered this vaccine in the next week or two, she said, because isolating and quarantining in these environments is very difficult and outbreaks persist.

“We have done a lot of analysis of those [work] settings and there are some where there’s larger numbers of people, it’s more challenging for the COVID safety plans to be adhered to and it has effects on worker safety that reflects into our communities,” Dr. Henry said Monday. “That’s why we’re focused on the ones that we know need to stay open.”

Dr. Henry said this vaccine, sent from the Serum Institute of India, can be transported to work sites in coolers and be given out to any staff that want it, even those over 65. She dismissed concerns in European countries that this drug can cause blood clots, noting millions of doses have been given out around the world and only 37 such cases have been identified so far.

Steve Hunt, director of the United Steelworkers for Western Canada, which represents roughly 25,000 members in mining and forestry in B.C., said resource companies have collaborated with unions to ensure safety protocols are being followed on the job, but the nature of some of their work brings a higher risk of spreading the virus.

“It’s tight quarters,” he said Monday. “If you take the industry down, it’s a big impact on the economy, as well.”

B.C. is still determining which front-line responders and other workers will benefit from getting earlier access to a vaccine when more AstraZeneca doses arrive, Dr. Henry said. This parallel immunization push is happening apart from the much wider age-based deployment of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are now set to be given to people 83 and older who call their local health authority to schedule an appointment.

The vast majority of people living on Canada’s West Coast are still without a single dose, with 1,506 new COVID-19 cases reported on the weekend, including 195 people fighting more-infectious variants of the virus traced to Britain, South Africa or Brazil.

Confusion over who is eligible to get jabbed with AstraZeneca prompted some officers in the Vancouver Police Department and their local colleagues in the RCMP to book appointments on the weekend after public-health call centre staff told them they could.

Constable Steve Addison, a VPD spokesperson, said only prison staff are currently allowed this access so these officers have called back and cancelled.

Staff Sergeant Janelle Shoihet, with the B.C. RCMP, said she didn’t know how many Mounties made the same mistake, but any appointments were quickly cancelled.

“Over the weekend, we spoke with the BC Ministry of Health to resolve the misinformation and confirmed this is not the case and police officers will continue to be part the previously announced rollout plan, mindful that front-line essential workers may been moved up based on vaccine availability during Phase 3,” she wrote in an e-mailed statement.

B.C. has reported just over 88,000 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began and had administered almost 409,103 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Monday also marks the launch of vaccination clinics across B.C. for Indigenous elders 65 years old and up as well as seniors over 90 who booked appointments.

Clinics also began in Prince Rupert and Port Edward, where all adults are being immunized, regardless of age, because of high infection rates in that northwestern region.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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