Local police and fire departments have expressed concerns as members are still waiting for COVID-19 vaccines. (Black Press Media file photo)

Local police and fire departments have expressed concerns as members are still waiting for COVID-19 vaccines. (Black Press Media file photo)

Greater Victoria firefighters, police left searching for leftover COVID-19 vaccines

Departments still waiting despite being identified as a priority, leadership concerned about safety

Searching for leftovers in a system that pits police and fire departments against each other, has at least one local association crying foul while many Greater Victoria first responders are frustrated and unvaccinated.

“Failure to vaccinate first responders puts the public at increased risk,” said the Central Saanich Police Association (CSPA) in a statement. Police and firefighters can’t work from home and while they take precautions, there’s no way to avoid risks, the association said. First responders cannot pre-screen those they come into contact with, use a plexiglass barrier or deny service to those with symptoms, and often work in close contact with those unwilling or unable to follow the public health protocols.

Oak Bay Police Chief Ray Bernoties agreed. He said the delay is concerning because an outbreak could have significant ramifications for public safety.

In Surrey, more than 20 police and firefighters fell ill or had to self-isolate and a similar situation could decimate a small department, the CSPA said in the statement dated April 15, adding members have tried to be patient, but with no updates from the province, they’ve opted to seek out doses wherever they can.

While a handful of members have been able to get leftover vaccines at public immunization sites, CSPA is concerned “this pits police departments and fire departments against each other while trying to vaccinate their members” and forces Island Health staff to make difficult decisions about who will receive the remaining doses.

According to the B.C. Emergency Health Services, paramedics haven’t faced the same struggles and most have already received their first dose. Paramedics were included in Phase 1 of B.C.’s vaccination framework and have been eligible since early 2021 because they were prioritized as healthcare workers who come into contact with COVID-19 patients.

Ralph Kaisers, president of the B.C. Police Association, said Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health are nearly done vaccinating first responders but the rest of the province is in the same boat as Vancouver Island. While not all protected, police are being asked to manage gathering violations and enforce travel bans.

READ ALSO: B.C.’s COVID-19 non-essential travel ban takes effect, $575 fines approved

In a statement on April 21, Island Health said first responders are the first priority in the workplace vaccination program and will be notified when their turn comes as it’s a provincial decision.

In Victoria, Fire Chief Paul Bruce said his department is still waiting for information from Island Health regarding a vaccination plan and the lack of communication is a source of stress for members. About a quarter of the fire suppression unit has received leftover vaccines and the department has had one positive case of COVID-19.

Bruce is having a hard time understanding the logic of offering the AstraZeneca vaccine to anyone over the age of 40 – some of whom could work from home – when first responders haven’t been protected.

While the Sidney Fire Department has been lucky to have about 80 per cent of staff get their first doses at the Mary Winspear Centre, Fire Chief Brett Mikkelsen echoed the concerns raised by those still waiting for vaccines. He said it’s vital for first responders to receive the extra layer of protection – for their safety and mental health.

Following Sidney’s lead, North Saanich Fire Chief John Trelford requested his team be notified of any leftover vaccines at the Mary Winspear Centre. So far, five members have received a first dose – the Central Saanich Fire Department has also managed to get a few members vaccinated at the facility.

Trelford is concerned about potential COVID-19 exposures – especially as his department is staffed by volunteers.

In Oak Bay, Fire Chief Darren Hughes said as of April 21, five staff members had received a first dose through other streams, including the AstraZeneca age-based distribution through pharmacies.

READ MORE: Saanich firefighters not prioritized for COVID-19 vaccine despite working on frontlines

On Tuesday, Saanich Asst. Deputy Chief Rob Heppell told Black Press Media that the Saanich Fire Department had yet to hear when members would be vaccinated outside of the age-based program.

Health authorities are targeting areas where there’s a high incidence of COVID-19 and the department has been fortunate in that there have been no exposures among members, Heppell said.

In Esquimalt, all but four firefighters had been vaccinated by April 21, but Tara Zajac, Esquimalt manager of communications, said those members are expected to receive their doses soon.

West Shore fire chiefs said in a joint statement they were pleased to hear that earlier in the week, the provincial health officer had recognized the need to get all B.C. first responders vaccinated.

“This is vitally important for our members to receive the protection needed to perform our duties and to continue delivering our services to the community,” they said, adding the departments are eagerly awaiting confirmation regarding the timeline for mass vaccination of first responders.


 

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