The B.C. government continues to delay acting on its commitment to provide priority vaccinations to 300,000 frontline workers, but individual health authorities are dispensing thousands of shots through an opaque approval system meant to protect people in workplaces with the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission.
The province has two main streams for vaccination: Most of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are reserved for an age-based immunization program, while the AstraZeneca supply was promised to frontline workers, including teachers, grocery workers, police, firefighters and daycare workers. But the guidelines around who get those doses are not clear.
The AstraZeneca program was halted when questions were raised about the vaccine’s safety for younger populations, and the province is handing over most of its supply to pharmacies, where it is now being offered to residents between the ages of 55 and 65.
But a portion of B.C.’s vaccine supply is ending up in the arms of teachers and other school staff in Surrey, along with workers in food processing facilities, farm workers and administrators in health authorities. The entire adult population of Prince Rupert was offered vaccination and workers in select restaurants and retail shops have been vaccinated.
Teachers from other districts were turned away from the clinics offered to Surrey staff. Matt Westphal, president of the Surrey teachers’ union, said his members are being vaccinated because of the high rate of COVID-19 infections in the district. “It was an important recognition of the risks that they’ve been facing working in Surrey schools, with the high levels of COVID in the community,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
“There are very few schools that have not had exposures, many that have had people self-isolating, there are whole classes that are self-isolating.”
Fraser Health says it expects to vaccinate 10,000 teachers and support staff in the school system, but did not provide details about where it is taking its supply from for this initiative.
On Tuesday, the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said no decision has been made on what to do with those workers who were deemed to be a priority last month. “We’re looking at whatever option we can do,” she said. “We can also stream workers through the pharmacies where the vaccine is. So we will be looking at that in the next little while.”
B.C.’s priority list for front-line workers is based on the known risk of transmission, as well as the nature and size of the workplace environment, according to health officials. The priority list focused on workplaces where the use of personal protective equipment and barriers can be challenging, where outbreaks and clusters have occurred or are ongoing, or where maintaining the workforce for a critical service is necessary. Health officials did not respond to requests for details of which groups are still being vaccinated in the interim.
The province estimated it would have enough AstraZeneca for roughly 300,000 workers in priority occupations. But the majority of that supply is being streamed to the pharmacy program based on age, which is expected to be oversubscribed. There are roughly 200,000 doses available for about 700,000 British Columbians between the ages of 55 and 65.
Meanwhile the provinces is awaiting an update from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) on the use of AstraZeneca. On March 29, NACI recommended a pause in the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in all people under 55 years of age until more information is available on the rare events of blood clots seen in some countries in Europe.
In a joint statement issued Wednesday, Dr. Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix noted that the province has now vaccinated almost 20 per cent of eligible British Columbians, and the province is now inviting people 70 and older, Indigenous people who are 18 and over, and individuals who have been classified as “clinically extremely vulnerable” to book appointments for a vaccine.
“The parallel, worker-focused program remains a priority, and scheduling of vaccines will resume as more vaccine becomes available,” the statement said.
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