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Why are Alberta paramedics and police getting COVID-19 vaccines before firefighters?

Click to play video: 'Hinshaw explains why firefighters are not included in Phase 2B of COVID-19 vaccination program' Hinshaw explains why firefighters are not included in Phase 2B of COVID-19 vaccination program
WATCH: Dr. Deena Hinshaw explains why firefighters were not included in Phase 2B of Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccination programs, despite police officers and EMTs being included. – Mar 25, 2021

Paramedics and emergency medical responders were included in Phase 1 of Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which started in January. Front-line police officers are part of Phase 2C, which is expected between April and June.

Firefighters have not been identified as a priority group so far in Alberta’s phased vaccine plan.

Read more: ‘Huge relief’: B.C.’s teachers, police officers, front-line workers react to COVID-19 vaccine news

As Dr. Deena Hinshaw explained Thursday, the province is making vaccine prioritization decisions based on personal risk of severe outcomes or death, rather than risk of exposure to the virus.

“Some people are under the impression that we used the risk of people being exposed to COVID-19 as part of our categorization,” she said.

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“Or some people, I think, perhaps feel that we’ve looked at so-called essential services and we’ve used the relative value of different occupations to prioritize. Neither of those is correct.

“The criteria that we used were, first of all, those who were at highest risk of severe illness and death and those who were the most likely to potentially expose those individuals based on their occupation and the groups that they interact with,” Hinshaw said.

“We know that paramedics are often involved in inter-facility transfers between long-term care facilities and hospital. And we know that long-term care, supportive-living facilities are some of those highest risk environments.”

Part of providing that wrap-around protection to those in high-risk settings includes vaccinating employees who go in and out of those sites — like paramedics — Hinshaw added.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton firefighters on challenges of working during a pandemic' Edmonton firefighters on challenges of working during a pandemic
Edmonton firefighters on challenges of working during a pandemic – Apr 14, 2020

The Edmonton Fire Fighters’ Union (EFFU) has been pushing for members to be vaccinated earlier.

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“While the majority of our members provide medical first response service, we are not designated as emergency medical responders, thereby excluding us from prioritized vaccination lists,” the union said.

In a March 15 news release, the union said 55 of its 1,300 Edmonton firefighters have tested positive COVID-19 and there have been more than 4,300 isolations due to exposure.

Having so many members have to isolate due to exposure has “created challenges in maintaining proper staffing levels,” the union said, and it’s worried the rise of variant cases will strain staffing even further.

At the end of February, seven firefighters at Edmonton’s Fire Station 3 tested positive. All had returned to work as of Thursday, and Edmonton Fire Rescue Services said the outbreak did not affect operational abilities.

Read more: 4,300 isolations: Union says Edmonton firefighters should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccine

When the province was looking at its Phase 2 sequencing — the vaccine rollout is broken down into four groups: Phase 2A, 2B, 2C and 2D — it also looked at locations where big outbreaks could happen. Those sites include congregate settings, which are included in Phase 2C.

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“One of the things that we were looking at were the settings that are at very high risk of explosive outbreaks — going from one person who’s infectious to many who could be spreading the disease very quickly,” Hinshaw explained.

“And the settings of correctional facilities and shelters for those experiencing homelessness were two of those settings.

“We know that front-line police officers are often interacting with those individuals on a regular basis in-person.”

Alberta’s chief medical officer stressed the work of all front-line workers and all first responders is immensely important and appreciated.

“People who work in occupations where they are personally potentially exposed because they’re working out in public, we recognize that that’s an issue,” she said.

Read more: The ethics of vaccine rollout: Who should be in Alberta’s Phase 2?

“I would love to be able to give vaccine to every Albertan and to all those who serve in those front-line ways because it provides an incredibly valuable service to our community.

“The reality is, we have a very short supply of vaccine and we have focused it on those at personal high risk of severe outcomes and at those very high risk settings of extremely large outbreaks and those who work in those settings.”

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