As COVID-19 variants rise across the country, some are saying Manitoba needs to move essential and critical service workers higher in the vaccine priority list.
Larger Canadian cities are grappling with more contagious COVID-19 variant cases inundating their hospitals and intensive care units. In one Toronto hospital, several ICU patients were under the age of 60, and had contracted the virus while at work.
“We absolutely are in favour of moving essential workers onto the list ahead of normally where their age has placed them,” UFCW Local 832 president Jeff Traeger said.
Data released by the province last month shows that COVID-19 cases in Manitoba were over-represented among people who worked in the food manufacturing industry. Traeger noted that they aren’t asking to move essential workers ahead of the elderly and health-care workers, but they do want to province to move them higher up on the list.
“We represent workers in a variety of pork processing plants and poultry plants, and it’s almost impossible for these workers to maintain that two metre distance. It’s the nature of the way these plants are designed,” he said.
“The employers have done a good job of putting up plexiglass and spacing every seat in the lunchroom so there’s no one sitting right by you, but with the new variants we’re concerned that’s not going to have the same success its had in the past.”
Traeger also says many of the workers are in a younger age demographic.
“One of the (workplaces) we represent, the average age is 31,” he said.
“So how long is it going to take them to work that number down from 64 to age 31? They’re going to be the last people that are vaccinated and they’re in one of the most high-risk positions”.
The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is also calling on the province to prioritize school staff as critical service workers.
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“All workers in public schools should be given priority,” Manitoba Teachers’ Society president James Bedford said.
“I went through a briefing about a month ago where public heath clearly indicated these variants of concern place public schools at a higher risk because the impacts they have on younger people are more significant.”
Bedford says despite strict physical distancing protocols in schools, the more contagious variants of concern pose a higher risk.
“Our schools are still crowded places during the pandemic. Yes, we practice physical distancing; yes, we wear face masks,” Bedford said.
“(But) we still have lots of people in a relatively confined space.”
He also points to other provinces that have prioritized educators in their rollout plan.
“What’s different about New Brunswick, where those who work in education are vaccinated, and Manitoba where they’re not receiving priority? And there’s no answer for that.”
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin says epidemiology in Manitoba still shows that older people are the most at risk, and the province will keep taking an age-based approach with the vaccine rollout, but will be assessing the situation as they go.
“We have yet to see substantial admissions related to younger age groups in ICU,” Dr. Roussin told reporters during a conference call Thursday.
“We’ve seen younger people admitted to ICU through the second wave, but we definitely see that occur in in other jurisdictions where the U.K. variant is prominent, and so we need to anticipate that here”.
On Thursday, Manitoba announced its first death connected to a variant of concern.
As of Thursday, 33 Manitobans were in the intensive care unit, both active COVID-19 cases and cases no longer considered infectious. They range in age from their 20s to 70s, and eight patients were under the age of 50.
A spokesperson for Shared Health confirmed to Global News that there are currently eight people hospitalized with variants of concern in Manitoba, four of which are in intensive care. Seven of those cases were confirmed B.1.1.7 variants, and one was unspecified at this time. None of the cases were under the age of 50.
Since variants were first detected in the province, 20 Manitobans have been hospitalized with variants of concern, including nine admitted to intensive care.