All workers on COVID-19 wards need vaccine now, Alberta doctors tell health minister in open letter

More than 200 doctors have signed an open letter calling on the province to prioritize the vaccination of all health-care workers caring for patients in Alberta's dedicated COVID-19 wards. 

'These are the unsung heroes of our battle,' 219 physicians tell Shandro

More than 200 doctors have signed an open letter calling on the province to prioritize the vaccination of all workers caring for patients in Alberta's dedicated COVID-19 wards. (Yui Mok/The Associated Press)

More than 200 doctors have signed an open letter calling on the province to prioritize the vaccination of all health-care workers caring for patients in Alberta's dedicated COVID-19 wards.

In the letter sent Wednesday to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, 219 physicians from across the province say Alberta's vaccination schedule has passed over critical workers on the front lines of Alberta's battle against the virus.

The physicians say all personnel employed in the specialized units — including family physicians, medical internists, nurses, clerks, aides, physical therapists and cleaning staff — contend with the same risk and should be next in line for inoculation, the letter states. 

The situation is urgent, the doctors say. Ward staff are continuously exposed to the virus and — despite the use of PPE — some have already contracted COVID-19 from their patients.

"These are the unsung heroes of our battle against this virus," the letter says. "It is not only dumbfounding but is in fact demoralizing that these colleagues have not been recognized for the valuable contributions they make." 

Shandro didn't immediately respond to a request for comment but an Alberta Health spokesperson said Wednesday the current plan directs limited supplies of vaccine to where they're needed most, ensuring the protection of long-term care residents and the medical staff who serve them.

Health-care workers in COVID-19 units are eligible for immunizations during Phase 1B of Alberta's vaccine schedule, slated to begin next month.

During the same phase, immunizations will be offered to workers in medical and surgical units or operating rooms, to seniors 75 and older, and people 65 and older living on First Nations reserves or in Métis settlements.

"The government has passed over a large group of healthcare professionals who are still continuously dealing with known COVID-19 patients and not simply the possibility of the same," reads the letter.

Dedicated COVID-19 wards have been operating in Alberta in the spring, providing care for patients diverted from intensive care units who rely on specialized treatment such as ventilators and must be carefully quarantined. 

The units are most often staffed by medical-surgical nurses, internal medicine and family medicine physicians, many of whom have been redeployed from other areas to provide adequate staffing for patients battling the disease.

"We would ask that all professionals who are working in COVID units be given priority for COVID-19 vaccination, much like our colleagues in ICU and emergency departments," the letter says.

"Our primary request is that nursing staff, unit clerks and cleaning staff who work on the COVID-19 wards be given urgent prioritization for vaccination."

The ability to staff Alberta's COVID-19 wards remains precarious, the letter says. It says staff are often sent home due to illness or possible exposure to the virus. Vaccinating all unit personnel immediately would ensure staff are protected and patient care is maintained, the doctors say. 

'A slap in the face' 

    Dr. Brian Wirzba, a general internist at Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton, was one of four doctors who spearheaded the letter.

    Wirzba has worked inside Edmonton's COVID wards and has seen the toll it has taken on staff who have been on the front lines of the health crisis.

    "We don't begrudge anybody for getting vaccinated," he said in an interview Wednesday. "But there's this big group that are sitting, waiting. 

    "These are the back-end workers who are taking care of 80 per cent of the admitted COVID patients in the province."

    Wirzba said it was right to give the vaccine to continuing-care staff first but as more doses are given to medical staff who may only have rare interactions with COVID patients, ward staff have grown frustrated. 

    "It's sort of a slap in the face that, you know, they're sitting there waiting patiently and doing the work day in, day out," he said. "The morale, I have to say, really hit a nosedive." 

    Wirzba said doctors also want Shandro to better explain the guiding principles behind Alberta's vaccination schedule and be more open about who is ultimately responsible for the plan. 

    "If it's not going to be until February, so be it. But give us some good reasons why, because it doesn't make a lot of sense for us in the trenches." 

    Dr. Tanya Tran, a family medicine hospitalist at the Grey Nuns, said her colleagues who put themselves at risk every day deserve to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

    "We've had to take care of our own staff who have become sick," she said. 

    "I honestly think it was a genuine oversight. I don't think anybody in their right mind would pass over a group of people who are taking care of fully-infectious, actively-infectious patients 100 per cent of the time." 

    As of Monday, 26,269 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Alberta.

    The province received its first shipments of the vaccine in mid-December. Health-care workers in intensive care units, respiratory therapists, and staff in long-term care and designated supportive living facilities were first in line to receive it.

    This month, the vaccine is also being administered to residents of long-term care and designated supportive living facilities, home-care workers and health-care workers in intensive care units and emergency departments. 

    Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the current roll-out plan is the best strategy given the limited supply of vaccine.

    The plan ensures Albertans most at risk of severe outcomes are protected first, he said Wednesday.

    "We absolutely recognize the important role that these health-care workers play, and thank them for the work they do every day," McMillan said in an emailed statement to CBC News. 

    "Right now, we're receiving limited doses of the vaccine, so we're starting in Phase 1 with those who are most vulnerable, and health care workers who serve them.

    "We are also immunizing health care workers that care directly for these individuals or who work in areas where COVID-19 is most critically impacting our ability to deliver care." 

    The province will start immunizing all other health-care workers in medical, surgical and COVID-19 units or operating rooms starting in February, provided enough vaccine arrives, he said.

    "To start immunizing all these workers immediately, we would be forced to immediately stop immunizing residents and staff in long-term care and designated supportive living. As we get more vaccine, we will expand this approach and move to Phase 1B as quickly as possible." 

    The letter is the latest criticism of Alberta's vaccination program, which some critics have said has been too slow. 

    The province vaccinated, on average, 1,248 people per day during the first 21 days of the campaign and failed to meet its goal to vaccinate 29,000 people by mid-December.

    The province would need to vaccinate more than 12,000 people per day to vaccinate every Albertan by the end of 2021. 

    At a news conference Tuesday, Shandro defended the province's vaccine distribution system, noting that the next shipment of vaccines was on the way later that afternoon. 

    The province is finding ways to make the immunization program more efficient and get the vaccine to people who need it, he said.

    'We'll get the vaccines out': Shandro

    "It was an aggressive goal and we're getting there only a few days later than we had hoped, in spite of the need to plan around delivery times and amounts that are consistently and constantly shifting," Shandro said.

    He said AHS is doing everything it can to immunize as many people as possible, including providing immunization in the evening, on weekends and on holidays.

    The province expected another 13,000 doses of vaccine to arrive this week.

    "We were on a bad course in December but we changed it," Shandro said.


    Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.