COVID-19: Alberta medical students left behind in province’s Phase 1 vaccinations

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WATCH: A group of health-care students across Alberta is mobilizing to be moved up the list for the COVID-19 vaccine. As Linda Olsen reports, they’ve asked to meet with AHS, armed with a petition, saying they’re also at risk. – Feb 26, 2021

Alberta medical students, who see and treat patients in the province’s hospitals alongside physicians each day, say they’ve been left behind in the government’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan.

Each day, student health-care learners perform many of the same duties their leaders do — from getting a patient’s medical history to doing physical exams, meaning they have direct contact with patients in their care.

“We would experience the same risk as those health-care professionals and employees in the hospital,” said Pauwlina Cyca, a first-year medical student at the University of Calgary’s Cummings School of Medicine.

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Read more: Alberta health-care workers in COVID-19, medical and surgical units now eligible for vaccine

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Cyca, a student body representative with the government advocacy and affairs committee, said the organization sent a letter earlier this week to Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Health Services’ Dr. Francois Belanger on behalf of all health-care learners in Alberta. She said the letter urgently asks that the students on medical teams included in Phase 1 of immunizations be offered the vaccine.

Pauwlina Cyca is a first-year medical student at the University of Calgary and part of a group petitioning the Alberta government to have students on medical teams included in Phase 1 of vaccinations immunized against COVID-19. Global News

Cyca said in the federal government’s guidelines, student learners in all fields — from nursing to respiratory therapy to physiotherapy — should be vaccinated with the team they’ve joined as part of their education. The Health Canada website states that a health-care worker is anyone who works or studies in a hospital, or other health-care personnel.

“As it stands right now in Alberta, none of those health-care learners have been vaccinated as part of their teams,” Cyca said.

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According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the number of health-care workers infected with COVID-19 in the country has tripled in the past six months.

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Cyca said for students who are meeting with patients each day, not being vaccinated brings a lot of fear and anxiety.

“Knowing that we have not had the capability to do absolutely everything that is out there to protect that person, ourselves and then our families that we go home to… of course there’s anxiety behind that,” she said.

“I think that if we had been part of the Phase 1 rollout, the clerks and medical student learners who are on rotation with these medical teams who have been vaccinated already… if those students had already been vaccinated… I think that there would be a great sense of relief knowing that there was not that gap in protection when we’re treating our patients in front of us.”

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Cyca pointed out that student health-care learners in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec are currently being vaccinated or have already gotten their shots.

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She said the U of C has protocols in place that dictate they must be vaccinated for many other illnesses like influenza, hepatitis B and polio, before they can work on a hospital floor, so being immunized against COVID-19 “is not outside of that precedence whatsoever.”

“By doing that, not only are we reducing the transmission rates between patients, but then we’re not getting sick ourselves and then putting undue burden on the health-care system that’s already really under a great deal of stress,” Cyca said.

Read more: Alberta doctors urge province to hold off on easing COVID-19 restrictions next week

Cyca said the organization doesn’t know why students weren’t offered the same vaccine appointments as front-line health-care workers have been as part of Phase 1. She said she has not received a response from the government on the letter. However, she’s optimistic the two parties will be able to have a constructive conversation about a safe path forward.

With Phase 1 set to wrap up in Alberta in April, Cyca said ideally, the students would be offered their shots before then. However, if that doesn’t happen, she said prioritizing students at the very beginning of Phase 2 would be “essential and crucial.”

When asked about why student health-care learners on medical teams included in Phase 1 weren’t offered the same vaccines their leaders were, Shandro said Phase 1 for health-care workers is “substantially completed for first doses.”

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“I think there are opportunities for those who are providing direct patient care to be included in (Phase) 2C,” he said.

“Whether there’s a concern of them not being included in 2C, I would defer perhaps to Dr. (Deena) Hinshaw to be able to answer that question.”

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According to the UCP government’s Phase 2 rollout plan, Phase 2C will see residents and staff in congregate living facilities — including correctional facilities, homeless shelters and group homes for disabilities, mental health and other licensed supportive living — be immunized.

Read more: Is Alberta ready for Phase 2 of COVID-19 vaccine rollout?

In Phase 2A, the government said seniors 65-74 years old, and First Nation and Métis people 50-64 years old who are living on- or off-reserve or settlement, will be eligible for the vaccine. Phase 2B will offer doses to Albertans aged 18-64 with underlying health conditions.

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Finally, in Phase 2D, Albertans aged 50-64 and First Nations and Métis people aged 35-49 living on- or off-reserve or settlement will be eligible.

Alberta Health declined to answer the question of when medical students would be immunized, deferring to Alberta Health Services.

In an emailed response, AHS  said it recognizes clinical students are “eagerly waiting” for news on when they can get immunized, but “based on current vaccine availability, we are focused on immunizing front-line physicians and health-care workers in key identified clinical areas, as well as key populations at highest risk from infections.”

“That list of eligible health-care workers does not include students who are not currently working in those identified clinical areas (such as an ICU or COVID unit),” spokesperson Kerry Williamson said.

“After careful review of the context, guiding principles and vaccine supply, it was decided that while students are key to our future success, they will not be sequenced ahead of HCWs currently working in the Phase 1 care areas.”

Williamson said Alberta Health identified health-care workers to be immunized based on how the particular groups would “contribute to a combination” of factors, including:

  • Reducing acute care demand
  • Protecting critical workforce
  • Enhancing the flow of patients and residents through the system
  • Preventing COVID-19 outbreaks

— With files from Kirby Bourne, 630 CHED


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