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B.C. to prioritize COVID-19 outbreaks and clusters with first doses of AstraZeneca vaccine

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Essential workers under the age of 65 and affected by an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak or cluster will be the first to get the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in British Columbia.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday the province is unsure on exactly how many doses will arrive next week in a shipment from India, but it will be in the thousands.

The vaccine is seen as easier to move than the Pfizer-BionTech and Moderna products and will be part of a separate stream of vaccinations than the age-based mass vaccination roll out.

“We know that there are some outbreaks right now that have been going on that have been challenging to manage, where immunization is going to be that extra tool to help us manage those so that we can stop that cycle of workplace to community transmission,” Henry said.

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This vaccine will be made available to first responders and other essential workers, and the delivery of these vaccines will run in parallel but separately from our age-based community-wide immunization program.

The vaccines were not expected to be in Canada until April or May, with Henry describing the early arrival as an “added bonus.” One of the additional challenges is that some of the vaccine expires on April 2.

Possible recipients will have the option to turn down the shot, but the province is advising people it is safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19.

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“We can look at the data and you can see that the rise in seven-day average, rolling average of cases, the outbreaks, the clusters we’re seeing in communities are in the Lower Mainland, particularly, and that’s where some of the more recalcitrant outbreaks have been,” Henry said.

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“Some of them are in food processing, some agricultural working. We’ve had some ongoing outbreaks in the north. People who are getting sick in a food processing plant in the Fraser Valley, many of them are lower-paid workers who live in large setting, either communal settings or in multi-generational households, and the spillover into our communities that then is into other areas through transmission to family members.”

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The bulk of the vaccine will then be used for other essential workers. Henry admits the challenge for distribution is first responders and essential workers are “a very broad group of people.”

British Columbia’s process will not be random. Henry is working with the province’s long-standing BC Immunization Committee that is also made up of experts from public health, from vaccinology and the Vaccine Evaluation Centre.

The committee also includes pharmacists, family doctors and infectious disease specialists.

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The group will be working, based on ethical guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunizations, to determine which essential workers go first.

“Based upon this information we will, the BC Immunization Committee is right now going through a process of defining who should receive vaccines as it becomes available and that we will ensure those groups are than sequenced and we put the operational pieces into place,” Henry said.

“So those recommendations, I expect, are coming to me in the coming days and based on this information the detailed plan will be developed over the next week to two weeks which we will share publicly as soon as we have those details ready.”

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BC Food & Beverage, an organization representing a number of B.C. food processors, says it has been working with government to prioritize workers in food processing plants. One of the challenges is the inability to physically distance in many of the plants.

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The organization is hoping the province will prioritize food processing workers based on considerations such as plant population density, whether a plant is located in a high-COVID-19 zone, and any potential animal welfare issues if a plant were to close.

“Some of the drivers of the economy, food supply is a key one and we see our industry as an essential service and if there is an opportunity to have access to the vaccine it would benefit all British Columbians,” CEO James Donaldson said.

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The B.C. Teachers’ Federation is also advocating for teachers to have access to the vaccine. President Teri Mooring says the shot should be prioritized for teachers in COVID hotspots like Surrey and in areas like Hazelton, where the virus has led to staff shortages and concerns about keeping the schools open.

“We are also seeing other jurisdictions, in particularly the U.S., prioritizing teachers to keep schools open,” Mooring said.

“We know one way schools can remain open is prioritize teachers in the essential workers.”

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