This Niagara custodian did a 'happy dance' when she found out she could get a COVID-19 shot

Niagara's COVID-19 vaccination task force said yesterday that elementary and secondary school workers can get the COVID-19 vaccine.

'Overwhelming majority' of shots will still be used to vaccinate people 60+: region

Christine Somerville, 52, is a custodian for District School Board of Niagara. Staff at Niagara schools can get vaccinated for COVID-19 starting Saturday. (Supplied by Christine Somerville)

Christine Somerville couldn't help but celebrate when she found out she and other Niagara school employees will be able to get the COVID-19 vaccinate as soon as Saturday.

"I feel fabulous," the 52-year-old custodian said on Tuesday. "I was doing a happy dance around my home today."

Niagara's COVID-19 vaccination task force said Tuesday that it will give shots to elementary and secondary school workers. The team cited risk factors that include the disruption of in-person learning, and the need to continue programs such as school meals to mental health supports.

Not everyone is as excited as Somerville. Asked about vaccinations for school staff during a provincial update Tuesday, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the move will mean fewer shots for older populations.

"Every time you make a change to vaccinate all teachers ... that then means you're also taking supplies away for some of the seniors too," she said. "So you need to be fair."

In a statement to CBC News on Wednesday, a Niagara Region spokesperson said the "overwhelming majority" of shots in the coming weeks will be used to vaccinate people 60 and older.

Andrew Korchok said the limited number of vaccines means officials have to look for ways to maximize health benefits. The province has authorized local health units to prioritize populations to meet the needs of each community in Phase 2 of the rollout, he said.

"Infections and outbreaks in schools are disrupting the education of children, and contributing to the wider spread of infections," Korchok said in an email. "Niagara is acting to try and prevent the need to close schools ... by prioritizing vaccinations for education workers."

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said giving shots to school workers will mean fewer vaccines for seniors. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Somerville is a custodian for District School Board of Niagara (DSBN). It's a job that puts her on the front line of the pandemic, cleaning up in classrooms, washrooms and public areas after students go home for the day.

"Despite everybody taking utmost precaution, I've been very scared and very nervous about contracting the virus," she said.

She's been closely watching the health unit for updates, and said she was "most grateful" to hear she and other education staff will able to get the shot over the April break.

The following people in Niagara will be able to access vaccines:

  • Teachers, including occasional/supply staff, who are working in-person.
  • Early childhood educators, including those who work in child-care and elementary schools.
  • Licensees, employees and students working on placements in child-care centres as well as licensed child-care and in-home service providers.
  • Custodial, cafeteria and administrative staff.
  • Bus drivers and monitors.

More than 1,500 education staff who work with students wiith special needs were vaccinated in late March, the region says.

Dr. David Dec, chair of Niagara's Community Co-ordination Task Force for COVID-19 Vaccination, said teachers, child-care workers and education staff face "unique risks" because of their roles.

"Under the principle of reciprocity, we recognize the importance of prioritizing those who continue to make sacrifices to care and protect those most vulnerable in our community," he said in a media release.

"In-person learning is critical to children's overall well-being and development, and we thank educators for their efforts to ensure child care ... and schools remain a safe place for children and youth in Niagara."

Thousands of workers eligible

In response to the news Tuesday, as many as 4,000 DSBN staff members can get their shots between April 10 to 18, the board said in a release.

The Niagara Catholic District School Board also said roughly 2,000 eligible can now sign up to receive their shots at the Seymour-Hannah Sports and Recreation in St. Catharines.

More than 23 per cent of current outbreaks in Niagara are associated with child care or schools, according to the release from the region, which said those cases stressed local health services.

'What a relief it will be'

Officials said vaccinating in education settings will allow health-care staff to focus on contact tracing and the vaccine rollout, rather than outbreak management and caring for patients in hospital.

They also pointed to school-based programs such as immunizations and meals. Disrupting in-person learning not only impacts meant and behavioural development of students, they said, but would "present greater harms for children living in poverty, and children with disabilities."

School boards in Hamilton, along with NDP MPP Sandy Shaw (Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas), have asked local and provincial health officials to vaccinate their staff as well. But it's not clear when education workers across the province can expect to start lining up for shots.

"I definitely empathize with the other education workers out there," said Somerville, adding she understands how anxious they must be.

"I hope and pray that it comes their way soon too because I totally appreciate what a relief it will be for them."