Alberta health-care workers, paramedics concerned with COVID-19 vaccine prioritization

Thousands of Alberta health-care workers have already received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but some workers believe they should receive theirs sooner rather than later.

Dr. Brian Wirzba, an internist at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton, said many nurses and staff in the hospital’s three COVID-19 wards are worried they’re not high enough on the vaccination priority list.

“COVID units are very high risk,” Wirzba said. “It’s not physicians, it’s not any particular individual, it’s people who are dedicated to work in high-risk areas should be prioritized.”

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As of Dec. 21, 3,074 doses of the vaccine have been administered in Alberta, and Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday that 25,350 additional doses of the vaccine had arrived in the province.

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Those who have already received the vaccine under the early first phase of the province’s vaccine rollout include some health-care workers in intensive care units, respiratory therapists and some staff in long-term care and designated supportive living facilities.

Phase 1A of the rollout begins in January, with that list being expanded to include home-care workers, health-care workers in emergency departments and all residents of long-term care and designated supportive living, regardless of their age.

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Staff in COVID units across the province will not be eligible to receive the vaccine until Phase 1B in February, which also includes seniors aged 75 and over, and First Nations, Métis and people aged 65 and over living in a First Nations community or Metis Settlement.

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“My colleagues in nursing, and unit clerks that are there full-time, they’re definitely at much higher risk than a regular medicine unit or a regular surgical unit,”  Wirzba said.

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“They should moved up into the 1A classification.”

Read more: 2nd shipment of Pfizer vaccine arrives in Alberta as 1,021 new COVID-19 cases identified

According to Wirzba, there is comradery in the COVID units, as many staff work under the assumption that every surface is contaminated with the virus, but staff are feeling fatigued and disappointed they were not included in some of the early prioritization groups for the vaccine.

While the vaccine won’t change any of the safety or cleaning protocols for staff on the COVID wards, Wirzba said the vaccine would provide peace of mind to the staff caring for patients with the novel coronavirus.

“Everyone is still going to be wearing full PPE, everyone still has to be cautious, no one can let their guard down even with the vaccine,” Wirzba said.

“But I think it’s a recognition of people who are on the front line who are doing tireless work and doing it because that’s what they need to do.”

Wirzba said he doesn’t believe the lower prioritization was intentional, but rather an oversight from provincial health officials.

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Alberta paramedics are also sharing in the frustration, as EMS members were not included in the first phase of the province’s vaccine rollout.

In an emailed statement to Global News, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the union that represents EMS employees, is urging the provincial government to include EMS on the priority list.

“Paramedics are amongst those most at risk,” HSAA president Mike Parker said in a statement. “Health professionals in COVID wards are aware of the situation they are facing and can take every precaution to protect themselves.

“EMS members never know what they are about to encounter when responding to a call for help.”

Read more: Hinshaw responds to Moderna approval, announces 19 more COVID-19 deaths in Alberta

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Parker added that paramedics must have access to supports and protections to ensure they can continue to do their jobs while being consistently at risk.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health addressed the concerns during Wednesday’s daily COVID-19 briefing.

According to Dr. Deena Hinshaw, decisions on eligibility for the “very first, very limited” supply of COVID-19 vaccines were not made based on the value that the roles bring to the province’s health system.

“Paramedics are a critical group. They provide a valuable service, as do many others,” Hinshaw said.

“We are looking at many options with that ethical framework — looking at risk, looking at the highest risk of severe outcomes — to be able to allocate our scarce supply of vaccine in the best way possible.”

The second phase of the vaccine rollout is expected to begin in April 2021.

In an emailed statement from Alberta Health, a spokesperson said no decisions have been made regarding other priority populations or groups, and many of the decisions will depend on how much of the vaccine is available, and the spread of the virus.

A decision, according to Hinshaw, is expected in early 2021.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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