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Hundreds of Alberta doctors pen letter asking why COVID-19 unit staff aren’t priority for vaccine

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WATCH ABOVE: Health Minister Tyler Shandro offers condolences to Joe Corral who was the first health-care worker to die of COVID-19 in Alberta, while also announcing a second worker has died of the disease. – Jan 5, 2021

More than 200 Alberta doctors have signed a letter written to Health Minister Tyler Shandro calling for vaccination priority for health-care workers on COVID-19 units.

Doctors are calling for nursing staff, unit clerks and cleaning staff working in COVID-19 units to be given priority for COVID-19 vaccination, similar to workers in ICU and emergency departments. 

It is not only dumbfounding but is in fact demoralizing that these colleagues have not been recognized for the valuable contributions they make on behalf of all Albertans,” the letter reads.

According to Alberta’s vaccination schedule, health-care workers in intensive care units and in emergency departments are scheduled to be vaccinated in January.

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However, those working in COVID-19 units aren’t scheduled until February.

Read more: Alberta health officials address COVID-19 vaccine waste ‘misinformation’ as 843 new cases identified

We do not begrudge those who have already been vaccinated but it would appear at this time we are transitioning from vaccinating those who have direct and frequent contact with COVID-19 patients to those health-care workers who may intermittently have contact with COVID-19 positive patients,” the letter reads. 

“We hope that this oversight will soon be corrected and our colleagues receive the respectful assurance of safety in the tangible form of priority COVID-19 vaccination.”

Click to play video: 'Hundreds of Alberta doctors pen letter asking why COVID-19 unit staff aren’t priority for vaccine' Hundreds of Alberta doctors pen letter asking why COVID-19 unit staff aren’t priority for vaccine
Hundreds of Alberta doctors pen letter asking why COVID-19 unit staff aren’t priority for vaccine – Jan 6, 2021

A spokesperson for Alberta Health said Wednesday that the vaccination priorities are due to the limited doses of it being available.

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“We’re starting in Phase 1 with those who are most vulnerable, and health care workers who serve them,” said Tom McMillan. “This includes residents in long-term care and supportive living. We are starting with these groups because they are the most at risk of severe outcomes, including death.

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“Since December, we have stated that we will start immunizing all other health-care workers in medical, surgical and COVID-19 units or operating rooms starting in February, provided enough vaccine arrives,” McMillan said.

“To start immunizing all these workers immediately, we would be forced to immediately stop immunizing residents and staff in long-term care and designated supportive living.”

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Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout rate and the plan to ramp it up – Jan 6, 2021

The physicians’ letter also notes exposure for the workers on COVID-19 wards is “continuous,” and that current numbers show the majority of coronavirus patients in the province are much higher in regular wards compared to ICU.

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On Tuesday, the latest numbers show 919 Alberta patients in hospital, with 140 — or 15 per cent of the total — in intensive care units.

Read more: Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout rate and the plan to ramp it up

Dr. Brian Wirzba, a general internal medicine specialist based in Edmonton, said Wednesday that the majority of workers also have no choice in their exposure risk.

“The nurses that are there, on those COVID units, are there full time,” he said. “That’s their entire shift. They didn’t make a choice to work on those units.

“Your risk of infection is related to the time of exposure. The longer you’re exposed, the greater the risk and the intensity of the exposure.”

Wirzba added that some of the patients in the wards are on high-flow oxygen, which he says can also increase the risk of exposure.

“We consider that a pretty high-risk situation. It actually is an open system, because the patients are breathing in the air. So those rooms are considered very high risk.”

Read more: COVID-19 claims life of Calgary health-care worker who friends say ‘died a hero’

Vaccination priority process unclear

The letter also questions why the province has not made its decision process on vaccination priority more public.

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“We are collectively disappointed with the significant lack of transparency,” the letter said. “To our knowledge, there is not a publicly available ethical framework guiding the distribution and prioritization of COVID-19 vaccination in the province.”

Read more: Alberta health-care workers, paramedics concerned with COVID-19 vaccine prioritization

Wirzba said that he is disappointed the letter needed to be written at all.

“It should be a little bit more clear and transparent,” he said. “Someone should be telling us why we’re not getting it. Rather than us having to sort of bring this forward very publicly. We’ve tried internal channels. We kind of keep getting push back, and no one really wants to take ownership of it.”

The February phase that includes the COVID-19 unit staff is considered “Phase 1B,” and also includes the immunization of seniors over 75 years, residents of First Nations and Metis on reserve who are older than 65, as well as additional health-care workers on surgical units.

“As we get more vaccines, we will expand this approach and move to Phase 1B as quickly as possible,” McMillan said. “We are working to immunize Albertans as effectively and safely as possible.”

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