Nova Scotia

Some N.S. health-care workers still waiting for first dose of COVID-19 vaccine

Special vaccination clinics for health-care workers were shut down, leaving some workers waiting for their first shot along with the general population.

Special vaccination clinics for health-care workers were shut down in early April

An ICU nurse tends to a patient in north-east Toronto last month. Many Nova Scotia health-care workers are still not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and some still have not received their first dose. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While many Nova Scotians may assume that all health-care workers in the province are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the unions representing those workers say that's far from the truth — though no one seems to know exactly how far from the truth.

Whether someone gets a COVID-19 vaccine is private medical information, so neither employers, unions nor the province have exact statistics on vaccination rates.

But health-care unions say they still have members who have not received even a first dose, let alone a second.

Many health-care workers were offered vaccines before the general public at special vaccination clinics beginning in December. 

According to the Department of Health and Wellness, about 56,000 doses of vaccines were administered during those clinics, and of those workers who got vaccinated, roughly half received a second dose, too.

Health-care worker vaccine clinics shut down

But the system for workers to book a vaccine had glitches, and some people fell through the cracks. Others were not given time off work to get vaccinated during the clinics. 

Then, in April, the separate clinics for health-care workers were shut down, and those who weren't vaccinated were told they could take advantage of limited appointments reserved for health-care workers at community clinics, or wait for their age group to open up to the general public.

Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said most of the health-care workers who missed out on the special clinics are in their 20s, 30s or 40s.

"A lot of them were let down because they were offered it and then it was yanked from them," he said.

A Halifax nurse became the first Nova Scotian to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 16, 2020. (Robert Short/CBC )

On May 10, a registered nurse working in an acute care unit at the Halifax Infirmary wrote to Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health, to dispute his claim made during a COVID-19 briefing that front-line health-care workers had "lots of opportunities" to access vaccinations before they were opened to the public.

"It is … wrong for you to mislead the public into believing that we all were afforded the same opportunity in January, when this is simply not true," she wrote in the letter, which was shared in part with the CBC by the NSGEU.

"This made it seem as though we chose not to book our vaccines, when in reality, we have been begging for them."

The nurse wrote that she didn't get the link to book a vaccine until April, and when she tried, the link didn't work. Shortly afterward, she said, the online booking process for health-care workers was shut down. The nurse was only able to book an appointment for her first dose in mid-May.

Another nurse wrote to the NSGEU to tell them while they got their first dose in April, some younger colleagues didn't get the opportunity at all because the rollout to health-care workers ended.

"Many of our staff spent days calling and emailing in an attempt to get a vaccine, with no response," the letter said.

Jason MacLean is the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. (CBC)

Bev Strachan, the president of CUPE Local 8920, which represents about 4,800 acute-care workers across the province outside the central zone, said she knows of one worker who did not receive a vaccine, received no training on droplet precautions or taking on and off protective equipment, and wasn't fitted for an N95 mask — and she works with COVID-positive patients.

"She happens to be one I know about. I suspect that there would be folks that I wouldn't be aware of."

Tracey Barbrick, who is responsible for the vaccine rollout in the province, said Public Health, the Health Department and Nova Scotia Health all agreed to shut down the special clinics because community clinics were opening up access so quickly.

She said the special clinics were vaccinating workers in their 20s at that point, so there are few who wouldn't have had access. Barbrick said Nova Scotia Health is still working to get unvaccinated health-care workers a first shot.

Vaccination rates among long-term care workers

Barbrick said based on self-reporting surveys in the long-term care sector, 65 to 75 per cent of staff in those facilities are vaccinated.

On Friday, Strang said Public Health is working to understand what the barriers are to getting staff vaccinated, and is encouraging facilities to allow staff to use paid work time to go get a vaccine.

Prioritizing health-care workers for second doses

As of May 17, there had been 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Nova Scotia Health employees during the third wave, and 15 were still active, according to an update from Nova Scotia Health to its employees.

MacLean said two workers at the Halifax Infirmary tested positive after a tracheotomy on a patient, and several others were in self-isolation because they were close contacts. He said another outbreak during the third wave occurred at a telehealth workplace in Dartmouth when 12 of 30 employees tested positive because there were no barriers between desks.

As the vaccine rollout picks up speed for the general population to receive first doses, the four main unions — CUPE, NSGEU, the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union and Unifor — are calling for health-care workers to be prioritized for second doses.

"Now that the third wave is here, we're hearing a little bit more from our nurses that now that we're here and it's big, we'd like to have our second dose," said Janet Hazelton, president of the nurses union.

Janet Hazelton is the president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Barbrick said health-care workers won't get special access to second doses, but since many received their first shot before the general public, they will be due for their second sooner than others.

As the third wave continues to batter Nova Scotia and fill COVID-19 units in hospitals, some unions are also asking that employers send fully vaccinated workers into those units, and only use partially vaccinated and unvaccinated staff as a last resort.

"Nova Scotia Health is scrambling to staff some areas and open some new areas, but they're not putting any thought into it. They're just trying to put bodies in there, which is really unsafe," MacLean said.

A statement from Nova Scotia Health says it "takes very seriously the health and safety of all its staff."

"Entire teams of health, safety, and wellness experts are constantly looking at our evolving situations within our hospitals, and workplace safety strategies are constantly refined to ensure both staff and patients remain protected," said the statement from spokesperson Brendan Elliott.

"The demand for critical care human resources in response to increased COVID-19 inpatient and critical care capacity has required a reassignment of our skilled and dedicated health care workforce.

"To support those reassigned workers, targeted education and support has been provided, and will continue to be provided, through various means."

MacLean said the province asked the NSGEU last week to survey its members working in home care to help determine how many are vaccinated, but the union said Friday it won't conduct the survey.

The union that represents paramedics, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727, is planning to survey its members on whether they are vaccinated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

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