The push for faster vaccinations for workers providing essential services

Infectious disease experts and advocates for frontline workers are calling for a revised vaccination strategy amid growing concern over the severity of more infectious COVID-19 variants in younger people.

Experts who spoke to CTV News said vaccinating based on age was the right strategy to start, but they are now calling on provinces to push younger workers providing essential services closer to the front of the line.

Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious-disease physician in Regina, Sask., said a revised strategy is needed because of an increasing number of severe outcomes in younger Canadians as more transmissible variants circulate.

“Now as we’re seeing the epidemiology that we are, we need to pivot quickly and address this very quickly,” said Wong.

Wong said Manitoba is in an enviable position because it hasn’t been hit hard yet by a third wave. He said in other jurisdictions that have, frontline workers have been disproportionately affected.

“It’s not really a Saskatchewan call or an Ontario call, it’s really a national call,” said Wong. “These are the same individuals that have struggled with little to no supports in the workplace and little to no supports in terms of paid leave or sick time or the ability to isolate to home.”

“They have no choice but to go and work.”

That’s a concern for some in Winnipeg working public-facing jobs.

“Anybody that’s working in the public should be able to get the vaccine, is what I think anyway,” said grocery store worker Jackie Sandul.

Sandul has worked at Food Fare for six years and comes into contact with shoppers every day. While she follows protocols, Sandul still feels vulnerable.

“I’m a diabetic and my mom’s a diabetic and I think it should be essential due to the fact that I don’t want to bring it home to her,” said Sandul.

Food Fare owner Munther Zeid said the issue is top of mind for employees.

“Staff are worried,” said Zeid. “There’s a lot of scare out there and we even have customers asking if our staff have been vaccinated or not — even about myself.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 832, which represents grocery store workers and people working in food distribution and production, said it’s been calling for weeks for its members to be prioritized.

“Ontario actually did prioritize some of the essential workers ahead of the regular age groups,” said Jeff Traeger, president of the UFCW Local 832. “I think it’s something that we have to seriously look at now.

“We can’t be seeing outbreaks in food production and retail grocery and security because we’re leaning on all of those industries quite a bit right now.”

Manitoba has so far prioritized health-care workers, older people and those with underlying illnesses.

Moving away current from the current vaccination strategy is a difficult decision but may be the right call to protect workers, according to Dr. Anand Kumar, an intensive care specialist at Health Sciences Centre and an infectious diseases expert.

“I think it’s a very reasonable thing on the one hand to say that we should continue to vaccinate those people that are at the highest risk of bad outcomes and that would be the older people,” said Kumar.

But Kumar said, on the other hand, recent data shows younger workers may be at risk of taking home more transmissible variants of the virus and spreading it to their family members. It’s why he suggests combining the eligibility criteria.

“So that older people who are in essential services and can’t isolate or can’t remove themselves, perhaps they should be the highest priority,” Kumar said.

A provincial spokesperson said Manitoba’s closely monitoring variants of concern and while no immediate changes to immunization plans are expected, the province will adjust and respond based on evidence.

Sandul hopes her turn will come sooner rather than later.

“Frontline workers, we should be able to get that vaccination just like the elderly,” said Sandul. “I don’t want to bring it home.”