B.C. front-line workers being given priority for AstraZeneca vaccines

The province plans to give priority to the immunization of more than 300,000 workers — including first responders, grocery store workers, teachers and child care workers — starting in April as more doses of the AstraZeneca ­vaccine arrive in B.C.

The province is projecting the arrival of close to one million total vaccine doses by mid-April, about double what B.C. expected when the initial vaccine rollout was announced at the start of March.

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The increase in supply, coupled with extending the interval between first and second doses, will allow the province to target workers in essential services and industries where outbreaks have occurred or are ongoing, job sites where use of personal protective equipment is challenging, and workers living in shared housing where distancing is difficult.

Premier John Horgan said the pandemic has been particularly challenging on front-line workers, who have not been able to work from home. “They are the true heroes that we want to immunize at this time.”

Priority groups include:

• first responders, such as police, firefighters and emergency transport workers

• kindergarten to Grade 12 educational staff

• child care staff

• grocery store workers

• postal workers

• bylaw and quarantine officers

• manufacturing workers

• wholesale and warehousing ­employees

• staff living in shared housing

• correctional facilities staff

• cross-border transport staff

Workers who have priority for the AstraZeneca vaccine should not phone health authority call centres to book appointments. Information will be shared with each industry directly.

Last week, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said ­workers in food processing plants, agricultural workplaces and industrial camps would have priority for early vaccination. Four food processing plants in Island Health will receive early immunization for workers, Henry said Thursday.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the age-based rollout using the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is unfolding ahead of schedule. Every senior born in or before 1941 is eligible to book an appointment as of Friday.

By the end of next week, everyone 75 and older and Indigenous people 55 and older will be able to book ­appointments. The schedule for people ages 70 to 74 will be shared in the coming days.

The province plans a shift from regional call centres to a provincial booking system, offering phone and online options, on April 6.

B.C. is on track to administer a first vaccine dose to about one-quarter of the population by the end of April, said Dr. Penny Ballem, executive lead of the B.C. immunization rollout team. Every eligible British Columbian who wants one is expected to have access to a first dose by July 1.

Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, said she was “ecstatic” that teachers are a priority for early vaccination. “This is such a huge relief. Leading into spring break, we had four exposures in schools, which doubles the amount we’ve had in Victoria,” she said.

Teachers have been feeling stressed out, and this news provides some hope that schools will eventually return to normal, Waldron said.

Denise Wood, president of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association, said teachers in the district are feeling nervous about heading back into classrooms after spring break and having priority for vaccinations will hopefully ease safety concerns. “I think teachers will be happy to hear that,” she said.

Oak Bay Deputy Police Chief Mark Fisher said the department is pleased with the announcement and officers are looking forward to receiving their immunizations. “This is something that our officers have been asking about for some time, so they are relieved to hear about this development.”

Horgan said the accelerated timeline means British Columbians are moving closer to the end of pandemic restrictions, but he urged continued vigilance. “British Columbians have done such a spectacular job to this point in time. Let’s not let each other down now,” he said.

Public health orders and guidelines will not change significantly in the next few months, Henry said.

Planning continues to determine how small, indoor religious services and youth sports can resume. Henry said she’s optimistic that high school graduations will occur in some form at the end of June.

COVID-19 variants don’t appear to be driving transmission in the province, but that could change if people aren’t careful, she said. There were 622 new cases of COVID-19, including 35 in Island Health, identified in the province, and 286 people in hospital, of whom 85 are in intensive care.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

> Eligible age groups can phone for a ­vaccine appointment: 1-833-348-4787

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