Teachers, bus drivers ask why they were excluded from next round of vaccinations

Some groups who have worked on the front lines throughout the pandemic are questioning why they’ve been left out of Alberta’s plans

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Nearly 1.8 million Albertans are on the list of those eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Phase 2 of the province’s rollout, slated to begin in April.

But some groups who have worked on the front lines throughout the pandemic are questioning why they’ve been left out of Alberta’s plans entirely.

“I find it disappointing, once again, that the government who has made schools a priority to be open during the pandemic has not stepped up to make sure the folks who are working in those buildings are being protected by prioritizing vaccines,” said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

The provincial teachers’ group is just one feeling jilted following Premier Jason Kenney’s announcement Friday outlining priority lists for the upcoming phases of vaccine rollout.

The plan will see seniors aged 75 and over living in the community eligible to get the jab starting Wednesday. When that group is immunized, the province will move on to Phase 2 of vaccinations, with four subsets of eligible Albertans.

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By the end of the second phase, all Albertans 50 and over, all First Nations and Métis people 35 and over, all staff and residents of congregate settings, health-care workers and caregivers of at-risk Albertans and all adults with yet-to-be-specific pre-existing conditions will have the opportunity to be inoculated.

Front-line workers, including teachers, police, grocery store clerks and bus drivers, are not included in the plan. Details of vaccine rollout beyond Phase 2 have not been specified.

The president of the union representing Calgary Transit drivers said he’s been advocating provincial and city officials to add bus and CTrain drivers to priority lists.

He said many city transit workers have tested positive for COVID-19, with the vast majority of cases coming over the course of the novel coronavirus’s second wave.

“Given our environment, I think we’re at a much greater risk than most,” said Mike Mahar with Amalgamated Transit Union local 583.

“We have 80, 90 and sometimes over 100 reported overloaded buses every day during a week, and even some on the weekend. So that’s 60, 70 people standing on the bus at one time with either no air circulation or negative air circulation into the driver’s station.

“That air is drawing towards the operator. How many times can you get exposed to that before you test positive?”

The co-owners of Comfort Keepers Calgary, a local private home care company, said they also felt like they had fallen through the cracks, having unsuccessfully lobbied the government to vaccinate their workers while Alberta Health Services home-care providers get the jab.

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“They just didn’t bother mentioning us at all,” said Mark Drury. “I’d like to be charitable and think we’ve just been overlooked, but we’ve made quite a stink about it. Someone surely should have taken notice.”

“I want them to take this seriously, that we’re a huge part of seniors’ care and by not including us, they’re putting our staff and our clients at risk,” added Tracy Drury.

Mark Drury, co-owner of private home-care company Calgary Comfortkeepers, poses for a photo outside his house in Langdon on Saturday, January 23, 2021. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia
Mark Drury, co-owner of private home-care company Comfort Keepers Calgary, said he unsuccessfully lobbied the Alberta government for vaccinations. Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Postmedia

During the press conference announcing vaccine eligibilities Friday, Kenney acknowledged difficult decisions were made and some groups were left out. He said those choices were necessary due to vaccine supply problems, blaming the federal Liberal government for supply shortages.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro also said front-line workers could still get the jab if they fall into other eligibility groups based on age or health conditions.

But Schilling said many people working in schools don’t fall into those categories and will be unjustly excluded.

He cited the National Advisory Committee on Immunization in airing his frustrations, saying the province ignored recommendations from the federal group by excluding essential front-line workers who cannot work from home from their rollout.

“For me, it’s not just about teachers only. It’s about custodians, education assistants, bus drivers, all those people who have been working in schools, been working on the frontline the entire pandemic,” he said.

“They’re working with the largest population of Albertans who will not be vaccinated, and that’s children. If we want to keep schools open and not get stuck in this cycle of isolating and working, isolating and working, we need to make sure we’re keeping those people doing those jobs as a priority.”

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Phase 2 of vaccinations, which will see more than half of adult Albertans immunized, is slated to wrap up in September.

Through end-of-day Friday, Alberta has administered 165,527 doses of vaccine, with 63,882 Albertans fully immunized after receiving two doses.

Alberta logs 380 new infections as hospitalizations keep dropping

On Saturday, as frustrations with vaccination priorities simmered, Alberta reported another 380 cases of the coronavirus.

The infections came from about 8,400 tests, representing a 4.5-per-cent positivity rate. The rate is above Alberta’s seven-day average. Alberta now has 4,803 active cases of COVID-19, down from 4,840 Friday.

The province also reported 14 new variant cases Saturday, all of the B.1.1.7 strain first found in the United Kingdom. In total, the province has detected 269 variant cases, seven of which are the B.1.351 strain that originated in South Africa.

COVID-19 hospitalizations saw a five-per-cent dip Saturday. There are now 336 Albertans in hospital with the virus, including 51 in intensive-care units. The next stage of Alberta’s economic relaunch, which could occur as early as March 1, requires fewer than 450 concurrent hospitalizations.

Seven more Albertans have died of COVID-19, including a woman in her 30s from the Edmonton area. The virus’s toll in Alberta is now 1,818.

Though hospitalizations and mortality rates are slowing in Alberta, the virus’s reproductive rate is back above one, according to a calculation by Ontario epidemiologist David Fisman, who calculated Alberta’s R-value Saturday at 1.09.

Alberta public-health officials give updates on the reproductive rate of the virus each Monday. At last report, Alberta’s official R-value was 0.85.

— With files from Madeline Smith

jherring@postmedia.com

Twitter: @jasonfherring

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