Specified front-line workers in Manitoba a little more at ease after prioritization for COVID-19 vaccine

Foodfare employee Jackie Sandul is looking forward to some peace of mind as Manitoba’s COVID-19 immunization strategy is slated to expand Friday.

On Wednesday, Manitoba officials released new details for expanding vaccination eligibility to adults living in certain geographic areas with high rates of COVID-19 spread or more severe outcomes.

Certain front-line workers, including grocery store workers like Sandul, will be part of the prioritization.

“It makes me safer. My employees and everybody in general around this area,” said Sandul, who is a cashier, supervisor and stockperson at the Foodfare on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg.

“Germs are passed by touch. If you’re touching someone’s money, what do we do? Touching their cards, touching their groceries. When you’re scanning it through the till, you don’t know what they’ve touched or where they’ve been.”

Sandul, a 45-year-old with diabetes, is already eligible for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. But knowing she’ll be prioritized through the province’s immunization plan adds a level of comfort because she won’t have to worry much longer about picking up the novel coronavirus at work, she said.

Geographic areas are deemed hot spots based on previous COVID-19 transmission rates, population density and socio-economics such as race, average income and housing, said Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s vaccine task force. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba’s vaccine task force has been reviewing public health data from the second wave and so far into Wave 3 to determine which parts of the province have seen high levels of coronavirus transmission and where residents have had more severe outcomes after contracting COVID-19.

They have also been reviewing which professions put people at greatest risk of picking up SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Front-line workers serving hot spot communities at a school, food processing facility, food establishment such as a restaurant and grocery or convenience store will be prioritized.

People working as child-care or daycare providers, food or public health inspectors, or workplace safety and health officers will be prioritized too.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832 has been pushing for such a shift for grocery store employees for a while now, said president Jeff Traeger.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to these people that have been doing this work, because we all have to eat and we all have to shop to get our food. They’ve gone to work each and every day throughout the pandemic to make sure that our community keeps running,” he said.

“If there’s any way that we can reduce the risk, like putting them higher on the vaccine priority list, we should be doing that.”

Traeger would have liked to have seen security guards, who often work in places like grocery stores, be added to the priority list too.

The upcoming changes to vaccine eligibility will be a huge boost for morale for school staff, said Chris Goring, principal of Isaac Brock School, a nursery to Grade 9 school in Winnipeg’s West End.

“It’s going to validate the hard work that staff have been doing in the school, not just teachers — educational assistants, custodians, administrators, clerical staff,” said Goring.

“It’s going to be peace of mind for them when they go home to their families.… It’s going to help us carry through the remainder of the school year and keep our schools safe.” 

A teacher with students at Isaac Brock School, where principal Chris Goring hopes the upcoming changes to the vaccine may also soon lead to a bit of normalcy for students. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Shaun Jeffrey, CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, appreciated public health officials recognized restaurant employees were at greater risk, he said.

The problem was Jeffrey learned about the changes the same time the general public did.

“Our industry looks to us for guidance and for feedback and education on what’s happening in Manitoba. We need to be brought up to speed on what the province’s plans are so that we can distribute that and communicate that in an effective manner,” he said.

People booking appointments will be asked for proof of employment, such as a workplace ID or letters from employers. In some cases, they may be asked to simply say they work in an eligible industry. They will be asked for proof of employment on the day of the vaccine appointment as well.

More essential workers may be added to the priority list as more vaccine doses become available, said Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba’s vaccine task force, during a Wednesday news conference.

The list of hot spots should be released Friday. Geographic areas are deemed hot spots based on previous COVID-19 transmission rates, population density and socio-economics such as race, average income and housing, said Reimer.

The people CBC News spoke with for this story agreed it makes sense to prioritize people working in communities hardest hit by COVID-19.

But Traeger believes all grocery store workers ought to be prioritized because of the amount of contact those employees have with the public, he said.

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