Ontario's essential workers eager to know when they'll be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines

After almost a year of working in crowded stores amid a deadly global pandemic, Ontario’s essential workers are facing yet more uncertainty as the province approaches its mass inoculation campaign.

Province has not yet said how it will prioritize different types of essential workers

Front-line essential workers will be eligible for vaccines sometime during Phase 2 of Ontario's immunization plan, which is expected to run from April to July. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

After almost a year of working in crowded stores amid a deadly global pandemic, Ontario's essential workers are facing yet more uncertainty as the province approaches its mass inoculation campaign.

"I want to know when a vaccine is going to be available for me," said Sergio Peña, a part-time cashier at a Toronto grocery store. 

"And that would mean knowing when essential workers are going to be able to get vaccines."

Ontario's COVID-19 immunization task force revealed on Wednesday new information about how it will prioritize residents when mass vaccinations are expected to begin near the end of March.

The shift to large-scale vaccinations will represent the second phase of Ontario's three stage immunization plan.

The proposed vaccination schedule is broken down primarily by age brackets, but the province also intends to begin vaccinating what it calls "front-line essential workers" during Phase 2.

What remains unclear is exactly when those workers will be eligible.

'We are also at risk'

The province has also not yet said how it will prioritize different types of essential workers, such as grocery store clerks, teachers and workers in the food processing industry.

"I think this is a very important point that we all need to know when we will have the opportunity to take it," said Lilia Abbassene, a cashier at a Toronto grocery and convenience store.

"As younger people, we are also at risk of getting COVID-19, and we need to know when the vaccine will get to us."

Grocery store employee Lilia Abbassene says it will be 'very important' for the government to clarify when essential workers will be eligible for a vaccine. (Lilia Abbassene)

While young people represent a miniscule portion of deaths related to the novel coronavirus, people aged 20 to 29 now account for the largest share of active COVID-19 cases in Ontario, with 2,198 cases as of Feb. 26. 

People aged 30 to39 account for the second highest share of active cases, with 1,701 cases.

Essential workers vaccinations could start in May

While Ontario has not said exactly when it plans to begin vaccinating essential workers, it has indicated that people in those jobs will not be a lower priority when Phase 2 formally begins.

People with high-risk chronic conditions and their caretakers and those who live or work in high-risk congregate settings (such as shelters) will also be eligible at some point in Phase 2.

Rick Hillier, the retired general leading Ontario's immunization task force, said on Wednesday that he does not anticipate essential worker vaccinations to begin until at least May.

"As we roll out, our priorities will be those more aged, those that are disproportionately affected and then our essential workers," Hillier said.

However, the proposed timeline is said to depend on the availability of vaccines, meaning that inoculations could either speed up or slow down depending on supply. 

Health Canada approved the AstraZeneca vaccine after Ontario released its proposed schedule, meaning the province will have greater access to vaccines than anticipated when shipments arrive in the second and third quarters of the year.

Retired general Rick Hillier, chair of the COVID-19 immunization task force, announced new details about Ontario's priority list this week. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Barry Pakes, a program director at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said essential workers will likely become eligible for vaccines "relatively soon" given the anticipated increase in supply and the possible approval of additional vaccines.

After noting that inoculating older residents is rightfully Ontario's priority, he said the concerns of relatively younger front-line workers should also be accounted for.

"Those have been people who are the most affected and are also legitimately, very justifiably, anxious about the situation over the past whole year," Pakes told CBC Toronto.

Clues about how the plan could look

While Ontario develops a more detailed priority list for essential workers, residents and planners can look to jurisdictions further along in their immunization rollout for clues about how the plan could look.

New York City, for example, started vaccinating grocery store and convenience store workers on Jan. 11.  Those workers were placed in the same eligibility bracket as school teachers, police officers and transit employees, among many others.

In New York City, those essential workers were eligible for vaccines before immunocompromised residents and others with chronic health conditions such as cancer and kidney disease.

Although a similarly detailed plan has not been released here, Ontario has indicated that it will prioritize people with health conditions before essential workers.

With files from Mariana Belham


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