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N.S., N.B. paramedics face different challenges accessing COVID-19 vaccine

Paramedics in the Maritimes are raising concerns about access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

In New Brunswick, the union representing paramedics and dispatchers says some weren’t able to get time off despite invitations to get the first dose in Miramichi, N.B., this weekend.

“You have about 10 or 15 members that — 10 from the west, 10 from the south, east, and north — that have basically confirmed appointments for this weekend,” says Andrew McLean, the president of CUPE Local 4848.

“Some of them are scheduled to work, and based on their schedule, they’re not able to be put off.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Honouring the paramedics on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic

McLean says since Ambulance New Brunswick’s inception, the policy has stayed the same; a time-off request is made if you have a scheduling conflict. If it can’t be filled, you have to work.

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That’s a challenge with a well-documented paramedic shortage.

But he wants more effort from Ambulance New Brunswick to help accommodate during these circumstances.

“It just seems right now, during the height of a pandemic, and the first vaccination, their stance is right now is we’re unable to get you off so therefore we’re not going to try.”

They obviously wouldn’t leave ambulances empty, McLean says.

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Coronavirus: New Brunswick begins ‘historic’ COVID-19 vaccination process – Dec 19, 2020

When asked about health-care workers who couldn’t attend this weekend because they were needed on the front lines, Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said the first priority group will be the focus over the next three months.

“So if they don’t get this batch, or the one next week, or the one the week after that,” she says, “sometime, obviously in the next three months, they would have access to an opportunity where they weren’t working to be able to get that vaccine.”

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New Brunswick and Nova Scotia received 1,950 doses each of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Tuesday.

A different challenge in Nova Scotia

But the challenge for paramedics in Nova Scotia is different, according to a union representative in that province.

“We don’t know when our paramedics are going to be vaccinated,” Michael Nickerson, the business manager for IUO Local 727, says in a Zoom interview.

In a statement from Nova Scotia health officials last week, “front-line health-care workers who are closely involved in the COVID-19 response” will be one of the focus groups for vaccination between now and March.

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New Brunswick looking ahead to its upcoming COVID-19 vaccine batches – Dec 17, 2020

Nickerson says he’s asked the province if that would include paramedics but hasn’t received a response.

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He says paramedics across Canada are being forgotten. When they are included, Nickerson says he’s worried there could be similar scheduling conflicts.

First New Brunswick paramedic vaccinated Saturday

Joel LeFort, of Moncton, was the first paramedic in New Brunswick to receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Saturday.

He was made available by provincial officials after receiving the shot in Miramichi.

“To say that [COVID-19] changed every aspect of my job is not an exaggeration,” he said.

LeFort said it was a “very emotional day” and highlighted “how such a small, little thing could mean so much in the grand scheme of things.”

Read more: Niagara EMS reports multiple coronavirus cases among workers

Aside from many additional personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements and safety protocols, he says another change has been asking all the COVID-19 screening questions.

He said he’s also had to deal with anxiety amongst patients when responding to some calls.

“It’s been a struggle … It’s been stressful,” he said. “As a health-care worker, whose partner doesn’t work in health care, there’s that anxiety that, what if I get sick at work?”

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“Talking about front-line workers, you don’t get very much (more) front line than you know going into peoples homes in time of need,” LeFort said.