Quebec to tweak priority level for teachers, cashiers and other workers as new vaccines arrive

Since September, teacher Kathleen Usher has been exposed to COVID-19 in a way that she says some other non-essential workers may not be able to completely understand.

“We are surrounded -- we are so vulnerable as teachers," said Usher, who is a science specialist and teacher at Willingdon Elementary School in N.D.G.

"It’s a crazy situation that we’ve been in since the beginning of the school year, in packed classrooms with all of the shared air."

Usher, like many teachers, has mixed feelings about Quebec placing educators very low on the list of vaccination priority groups. They are in a tier along with others who provide certain essential services and are the second-to-last priority group, just ahead of the general younger population.

But while that means her vaccination date might still be months away, Usher, who teaches Grade 3 through Grade 6, says she's taking a pragmatic view of the process.

“It’s not that I don't wish I could be protected today, because I certainly do wish that,” she told CTV, but “I’m not sure who I would want to bump.” 

Provincial health officials are now looking again at that same question, fine-tuning priority levels for a big group of workers.

In Quebec overall, seniors, front-line health-care workers and people with serious health problems are being prioritized.

One school board, along with some other groups, recently demanded the government speed up vaccinations for teachers, but it doesn’t appear that will happen for the time being.

However, a spokesperson from Quebec’s health ministry told CTV News the ministry is working to “determine the precise list of workers who will have access to immunization" among those who have close contact with the public.

That list would include teachers, cashiers in grocery stores, and “individuals or groups that were part of the essential services that remained open during the first and second wave,” according to ministry spokesperson Marie-Helene Emond.

Emond couldn’t confirm which other types of specific job categories will “be part of this sub-group,” who are all still within Category 9, the same second-to-last group Usher already knew she was in.

Since vaccines are being offered in Quebec according to age and health status, however, teachers who are 60 to 69 years old are higher up on the list, as are any teachers who are under 60 who have chronic disease or who are at risk of COVID-19 complications.

The health ministry also confirmed to CTV News that even dentists, who work closely with their unmasked patients, “will not be vaccinated until April... subject to the number of doses of vaccine to be received from the federal government.”

It's not necessarily an easy call to make. Usher said that while the wait feels long, she doesn't think teachers should be bumping seniors or others who currently have priority, adding that her own 82-year-old mother still has a wait ahead of her.

“Personally, I don’t feel that we should go ahead of any of those individuals,” Usher said,

NOT SET IN STONE

The province's vaccination priority lists have already been updated several times, and one expert who who was consulted for the first version says “they are not set in stone.”

For example, residents in the greater Montreal region have moved up the ladder because the city is a COVID-19 hot spot, said public health expert and professor Benoit Massé.

Federal guidelines also changed last week.

Canada’s national advisory committee on immunization noted in its update, for example, that racialized communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic should be prioritized for shots in the second stage of the vaccination campaign.

It also advised moving up all essential workers who can't do their jobs from home into the second stage, instead of focusing on health workers with lower-risk jobs.

That includes, teachers, grocery store cashiers and bus drivers, and others.

“So currently, there is a slight difference in vaccination priorities at the federal and provincial levels," said Massé. "Although age is still the main factor for determining priorities."

On a positive note, Massé says if Health Canada approves emergency use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine soon, Canada will likely receive those additional vaccine doses in March and April.

Then, “it would make sense to vaccinate essential workers that are exposed daily to the public, like cashiers, bus drivers and teachers,” he said.

SCHOOL OUTBREAKS CONTINUE

For teachers, all this waiting and wondering continues as the virus continues to spread fast in schools.

On Wednesday, Montreal’s public health director announced 22 new outbreaks in the city that were linked to variants, mainly in schools and daycares.

Usher says that while teachers wait for vaccine news, the government's other moves are not reassuring.

She points to its recent decision to relax public health measures before and during spring break, while then mandating that younger students wear masks in class -- but only when they return from holiday.

“That’s a huge contradiction right there, and then we have the [slow] vaccination rollout," she said.

"I’m not at all convinced we can stay safe in time to get our vaccines."

Two high-school English teachers say there are also still many misconceptions about how much protection teachers really have in the classroom.

"The politicians [are] saying 'Oh, we’re wearing masks, we have the equipment and distancing is possible,'" said one of the teachers, Lisa Krywiak. "No! It’s really not.”

Krywiak and Christine Provencher, both of whom work at Academie Ste-Therese on the North Shore, say they'd like to get their vaccines earlier than planned.

Provencher says if a student is struggling with in-class work, the teacher must go to their desk and check the work. 

“Putting duct tape on the floor so kids see the limit [where they can stand]...it doesn’t work like that,” Provencher said.

Those everyday risks over the last many months have created fatigue and stress, they say.

Given the circumstances, the waiting time for a vaccine “makes us feel like we’re not important,” Krywiak said, though she said she also recognizes there are no easy solutions since other groups need to be prioritized too.

“I’m happy about the vaccine -- I think I have some faith,” Provencher said, in the government's organization so far.

“But I feel we’re left out.”

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