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Surrey fire chief calls for first responder vaccinations as COVID-19 cases rise among staff

Surrey's fire chief said in the last week eight firefighters and police officers in Surrey have contracted COVID-19 and 18 others are self-isolating.
Surrey's fire chief said in the last week eight firefighters and police officers in Surrey have contracted COVID-19 and 18 others are self-isolating. Shane MacKichan

Surrey’s fire chief says public safety could be in jeopardy if COVID-19 cases continue to rise among his rank and file.

Larry Thomas of the Surrey Fire Service says there is not a lot of workplace transmission taking place among firefighters while attending calls thanks to the use of personal protective equipment, but an increase in community transmission is impacting first responders.

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Thomas said in the last week eight firefighters and police officers in Surrey have contracted COVID-19 and 18 others are self-isolating.

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Thomas said he is concerned that rising cases could impact staffing levels.

“I think about it every night before I go to bed. What happens if we have a whole station that has to be isolated? I lose sleep over that,” he said.

Read more: COVID-19 cases among Whistler firefighters prompt call for vaccinations

Thomas said he hopes the province will resume its program to immunize essential workers.

Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards, officer in charge of the Surrey RCMP has emailed his members to say he shares the fire chief’s concerns.

Edwards said earlier this week frontline members responded to a sudden death. Prior to arrival, officers were told the entire family at the home was COVID-positive.

He said in spite of officers taking all the steps to minimize risk, the fear of contracting COVID-19 and bringing the virus home is taking a toll on mental health.

Edwards said the reality is first responders can’t carry out many of their duties from two meters away, and he plans to continue advocating for members to be vaccinated on a priority basis.

Essential workers who aren’t in B.C.’s health-care sector were slated to get priority access to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as part of an immunization program separate from the province’s age-based vaccination rollout.

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Plans changed when federal officials halted the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in people under the age of 55 due to concerns over blood clots.

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“I hope the province will recognize that if AstraZeneca approval is going to take a little while they need to pivot and help get first responders vaccinated sooner rather than later,” Thomas said.

Other B.C. fire departments are also dealing with COVID-19.

Earlier this week, the mayor of Whistler, which has been a COVID-19 hot spot, said the municipality has seen a spike in cases of the virus involving first responders, notably firefighters.

Read more: Why rare blood clots could be a side effect of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

“We’re really concerned about all of our essential service workers, including fire, police and ambulance,” Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton said.

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The municipality did not reveal exactly how many of the community’s firefighters are battling COVID-19, but sources have told Global News that up to a dozen people may be infected with one person in intensive care.

Whistler, which is a more isolated community, is calling for a community vaccination rollout similar to what has been announced for communities such as Tofino and Ucluelet.

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District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services said it has had only a handful of cases, but is advocating for an immunization program.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday that the province is in the process of ramping up its program to immunize workers, with a focus on first responders.

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