Vaccination important protection for front-line officers: police association president

Despite the fact they're dealing with the public and facing volatile situations involving the virus, front-line police officers are nowhere near the front of the line when it comes to priority for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Sask. front-line police currently left out of priority spots for vaccine rollout

A member of the Regina Police Service can be seen wearing a mask in this CBC file photo. The Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police says front-line officers should be considered for priority as the province continues its vaccine rollout, considering they're regularly dealing with COVID-19 enforcement measures. (CBC)

Police officers in Saskatchewan have been on the front line of enforcement when it comes to the province's public health orders, responding to everything from the violation of an isolation, to ticketing those at large anti-mask rallies. 

But despite the fact they're dealing with the public and facing volatile situations involving the virus, front-line police officers are nowhere near the front of the line when it comes to priority for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Rick Bourassa, chief of the Moose Jaw Police Service and president of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police (SACP), says police agencies don't want to muscle their way into priority spots, but says it's important officers are prepared as they take on more duties around public health orders. 

"The front-line people are not only involved in public safety, and ensuring that moving forward, but we are the front-line responders to non-compliance and monitoring during this pandemic," he said. "So police officers across the province are quite knowingly putting themselves at risk."

Bourassa says police services understand the imperative of enforcing those orders — as it helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 — but that enforcement can sometimes involve officers being in "close and prolonged contact" with infected people. 

"And in our environment, we don't have time to stop, slow everything down, put on the full personal protective equipment; it's very much moving quickly to keep other people safe." 

Vaccine keeps both officers, public they serve, safe: SACP

Bourassa says there has been good dialogue between police services and local health authority officials. But he says he'd like to see more opportunities for discussions directly with provincial officials in charge, as most of that communication has been done through intermediaries and various government agencies. 

"In order to keep spread of the virus from increasing, as we work toward compliance of people who aren't complying, and in order to just maintain public safety, our members need to have the tools," he said. "And one of those tools is to have been vaccinated." 

Rick Bourassa, who is Moose Jaw Police Chief and President of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police, says province should consider making police officers a priority group for vaccine, but stressed they don't want to bump anyone out of line. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

He said officers are doing everything they can to keep safe while on the job, but notes policing can be unpredictable and there have already been instances where resources were "severely limited" due to close contacts and exposure.

"In some situations, other police agencies, other officers, have had to come in because there just wasn't the police capability to respond. We're very concerned about that," he said. If further, larger exposures take place, it could leave services shorthanded.

Some law enforcement agencies have already seen the virus enter their ranks, with outbreaks ongoing at a unit of the Saskatoon Police Service and the Prince Albert Police Service. 

Those who represent front-line officers say while members are not complaining about new duties, there is some frustration with the fact they've been left out of priority, especially when those new duties involve dealing with people already disregarding health guidelines.

"If they're disobeying that health order, they really probably don't want to obey police either," said Casey Ward, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Police Officers.

He says officers take no issue with the fact those on the front line of the health care sector have been prioritized for vaccines, as they're at highest risk, but he wants more consideration given to the hundreds of officers on provincial streets everyday.

Ward, who is also president of the Regina Police Association, says he's seen entire shifts "decimated" as a result of the virus, noting its police who are called when hospital staff and security are met with hostility, rather than adherence. 

"I don't think a lot of people understand how much we are dealing with people that are affected with COVID-19," he said.

He said he'd like for those making the decisions around vaccination at the provincial level to see first-hand what police are dealing with.

"I'd love for the minister to come out and actually see how exposed our members are," he said. "I'm sure the elected officials probably wouldn't even feel comfortable coming out, seeing how exposed they would be on a night shift, what our members are putting up with." 

Ward said he's willing to meet with stakeholders from the province to discuss how the role of a police officer has changed during the pandemic and why law enforcement services should be offered priority vaccination.

"We want to be considered in this and have a voice at the table when it does come out to be able to lobby and to put us in where we deserve to be," he said. "We're not saying we need to be right at the front, we totally understand that, but I think if we all sat down, I think people would understand right away." 

Ministry following national recommendations

CBC Saskatoon reached out to the Ministry of Health about the concerns raised by Ward and Bourassa on Monday, but a response was not received by deadline.

An earlier statement from the Ministry of Health indicated it's following direction from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization when it comes to its vaccine rollout. 

"Each province, including Saskatchewan, is using these recommendations to determine prioritization," the statement said. 

The province's delivery plan details how the first phase is set to focus on immunization of those at higher risk of exposure or serious illness. This includes health care workers and elderly residents in care homes, as well as seniors over 80 across the province and seniors over 50 in the north.

Phase 2 of the province's vaccination is set to begin in April when additional priority groups will be identified for vaccination alongside the general population.

"The Ministry of Health will provide updates on the availability of vaccines as the situation evolves, noting that vaccine approval and availability is established by the federal government," the statement explained. 

As for the province's police services, Bourassa says they've been able to continue with their regular duties patrolling city streets, even with the added weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting the "vast majority" of Saskatchewan residents continue to do their part. 

"People have been very, very good with doing all the right things," he said. "We have to get through this period — it will be a short period — and the more we follow the rules, the shorter that period will be." 

"We'll get through this together," he added.