British Columbia

Front-line workers, chronically ill concerned about low priority in B.C.'s new COVID-19 vaccine plan

People with compromised immune systems and front-line workers say they should be among the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccine instead of the aged-based vaccination plan announced Friday morning.

Firefighters, teachers, people with health problems say they should be immunized earlier

B.C.'s new age-based COVID-19 vaccination plans bumps many essential service workers, including firefighers, grocery store workers and teachers, down the priority line for a vaccination. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa/The Associated Press)

Sharon Lee-Flynn, 43, says she suffers from a spinal cord injury of more than 20 years and, with impaired pulmonary and cardiovascular systems, she's feels "more at risk than a 60-year-old." 

That's why the B.C. resident says she doesn't understand the province's COVID-19 vaccination plan announced Friday, which mainly prioritizes people by age, leaving Lee-Flynn to wait at least another six months before she can be vaccinated. 

Lee-Flynn is one of a group of vulnerable people who say they should be further up the new vaccination line, as they are not deemed by the government to be "clinically extremely vulnerable" due to certain conditions — like cancer or serious respiratory conditions. 

The list also includes teachers, first-responders and grocery store workers who are no longer being given higher priority based on their jobs. 

Instead, provincial officials announced that, after health-care staff, Phase 2 of the plan will allow seniors over 80 and Indigenous seniors over 65 to be vaccinated starting in February. Next will be Phase 3 in April which includes seniors 60 to 79, and a list of "extremely vulnerable" individuals. This leaves Lee-Flynn in Phase 4 starting in July when people from 18 to 59 will finally have the chance to be vaccinated. 

"It really seems like patients with true medical compromise have been overlooked in the 'ethical framework' put forth," said Lee-Flynn, adding that she's had "a very limited, house-arrest type of life" since last March to avoid risking her health.

Henry says schedule could move quicker if more vaccines approved

Premier John Horgan said Friday that he's received a pile of mail "a couple of inches thick" from advocates asking for higher priority for certain people.

"All of the arguments were very compelling … but the science is pretty clear: age is the dominant determinant factor on severe illness and death."

Both Horgan and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said other at-risk people could be vaccinated sooner than scheduled if more vaccines are approved by Health Canada.

Russ Grabb, 63, from North Vancouver, says while he's been diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of leukemia and won't be vaccinated until Phase 3, he's prepared to wait the three to five months it will take for this vaccine rollout because it is still faster than most.

"For us to be getting any kind of vaccination within 10 months to a year is a miracle," he said, adding that he's in "really good hands" with his doctors and his family in the meantime.

Firefighters can be exposed to COVID-19 on a daily basis, according to their union. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

First-responders should be prioritized, says firefighters association

Gord Ditchburn, president of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association, says while he's happy the plan is finally out, he's disappointed that firefighters, along with other first responders have been bumped down to Phases 3 and 4, under the new plan.

"Our members right across this province are exposed every day while interacting with the public in unknown environments… [This] puts firefighters at risk every day to picking up this virus," he said.

Similarly, Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, told CBC's On The Coast Friday that she's concerned about "thousands of front-line essential workers" who are at high risk of exposure to the virus every day. 

"For us, it's a question of clarity," said Smith. "We represent members in corrections, shelters, supportive housing, child care... When with their turn be?"

Teachers are concerned about not having faster access to vaccines, says the B.C. Teachers' Federation. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Teachers union wants enhanced protections

Meanwhile, Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, said that she understands many teachers are stressed at not being prioritized, and called for the government to "take immediate action" to improve safety measures in schools, if this continues to be the case.

"We must have a mandatory mask mandate, we must have better physical distancing measures, and we must have ventilation upgrades in our classrooms," her statement reads.

Horgan said the long-term goal is still to have everyone in the province who wants a vaccination to have it by the end of September.

With files from Rhianna Schmunk, Dominique Levesque, and On The Coast


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