Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. doesn't have a Phase 2 plan for vaccine rollout. Why not?

As other provinces move ahead with new segments of their immunization plans, Newfoundland and Labrador has yet to decide who's next in line for a COVID-19 jab.

Firm commitment impossible due to ongoing supply delays, says health minister

Premier Andrew Furey, right, and Health Minister John Haggie celebrate the arrival of the first vaccine doses in Newfoundland and Labrador on Dec. 15, 2020. Over two months later, it's still not clear who's next to get their shots. (Andrew Furey/Twitter)

The province's health officials have yet to decide who's next in line for a COVID-19 jab, and one union says the information gap is adding stress to front-line medical staff, who are already dealing with contagion fears.

Newfoundland and Labrador remains in Phase 1 of its timeline, having imported nearly 21,000 total doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna products as of last week's update.

Select health-care workers, nursing home staff and residents, and those in isolated Indigenous communities were first on the list for shots.

It's not clear yet, however, which groups — from penitentiary inmates to truck drivers — will get it next.

Other provinces have already forged ahead with their own timelines. British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have published detailed lists of who's getting their shots, and predictions for when it'll happen.

Closer to home, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have mapped out their respective phases, down to the types of essential workers who'll be invited to take part in the next inoculation stages.

All of that despite supply volatility across the country.

Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador hasn't yet hammered out its own plan, but the province says those eligible could include additional health-care workers, people linked to congregate-living residences, and essential workers.

"These categories will be further defined as more is known about potential COVID-19 vaccines that will be available in Phase Two, including the number of doses, number and timelines of vaccines available, and storage and handling requirements," the government website says.

One union preaches patience, another urges speed

NAPE president Jerry Earle, who represents a wide array of essential workers, says he's hearing some concerns from union members eager for their own appointments. 

While he sympathizes, there's not much anyone can do, he said.

"All I can say to people is, bear with it," Earle said, pointing to low shipment volumes and delays outside the province's control. "They're getting it into arms as quickly as they can."

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, seen here administering the province's first dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, says a draft of the Phase 2 plan is underway, but consultations are necessary before moving ahead. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Despite a cloudy picture from health officials on who's received the vaccine so far — and where the province stands in terms of Phase 1 completion — Earle says he's hearing about multitudes of front-line staff in health and home care who've been fully inoculated, and more on the list in recent or coming days, including staff at the Waterford Hospital.

However, Earle said from what he can gather, there's still "significant work to be done" on Phase 1.

"It's not the fault of the provincial government ... they are working with what they have," Earle said. "I imagine once they have a better grasp of consistency of supply, they'll be able to identify what Phase 2 is."

The province's nurses' union, RNUNL, also acknowledges there aren't enough doses to go around.

Yet the union says many of its own front-line staff have yet to be immunized — and communication has been so vague, union leaders aren't sure exactly how many are waiting.

In a letter to Health Minister John Haggie and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald last week, the nurses' union urged officials to take all possible measures to secure supply, and pleaded with government to keep them apprised of how quickly it could vaccinate health-care workers.

"On behalf of our members, we are requesting transparent communication on the implementation of the COVID-19
immunization plan," the Feb. 16 letter reads, citing the tens of thousands of front-line workers infected in Canada since last March.

Vaccine doses aren't arriving in N.L. as quickly as officials would have liked. (PAL Airlines)

"There's got to be some transparency," said president Yvette Coffey, reached by phone Monday night. Coffey said nerves among nursing staff are at an all-time high due to the transmissibility of variant B117.

They're anxiously awaiting any news, but weekly meetings with the regional health authorities aren't offering much insight into how many health-care workers have been vaccinated so far.

"There has to be a plan," Coffey said. 

"If people have the information, it may help to ease their stress."

No guarantees: Haggie

Some paramedics have been vaccinated, said Haggie on Monday. But he didn't offer any details about which front-line workers might be next.

"Until we see the whites of the eyes of these vaccine trays, it's really very difficult for me to give any kind of firm commitment," Haggie said, "because if I did it today in the hopes of settling down and reassuring people, the only thing I could guarantee is the date I gave you would be wrong."

Fitzgerald also said Monday her team was still sorting out the province's priority groups.

"I think we're very close. We just want to make sure what we're doing rings true, and that we have a thoughtful discussion," she said.

"It's not easy decisions that have to be made ... [but] we are working through some drafts now."

Vulnerable groups a priority, advocate says

Communal living spaces are also under consideration for inclusion in Phase 2, yet one youth shelter in St. John's has also been kept largely in the dark.

Sheldon Pollett, executive director of Choices for Youth, which offers congregate-living housing for vulnerable young people, says public health officials requested staffing numbers from him earlier this month. 

"I was glad to see that happen, but we're not sure yet what it means," Pollett said. "We're hoping to hear something soon."

Pollett says he understands the emphasis on residences, but while he waits for an update, he's also advocating for a wider spectrum of his staff to get the vaccine, so the non-profit can open up its suspended group programs — which are vital, he says, for those using essential services.

"We want to return to in-person support," he said. "The ability to get back to normal operations ... that's going to take a vaccine."

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