Days after Surrey’s fire chief warned that public safety could be in jeopardy if COVID-19 cases continue to rise among his members, Vancouver’s fire chief is joining the call to reprioritize first responder vaccines in B.C.
“Our staff are being compromised,” Vancouver Fire Rescue Service (VFRS) Chief Karen Fry told Global News.
The service’s more than 800 employees are already on the front lines of the overdose crisis and since March of last year, every call has come with the added risk of being exposed to COVID-19.
“We don’t have Plexiglas in front of us,” Fry said.
“We’re hands-on on the streets and we’re in people’s homes.”
Fry said they are seeing presymptomatic or asymptomatic staff unknowingly bringing the virus into fire halls after being exposed in the community.
“It appears to be getting worse,” said Fry, who wants to see firefighters and police vaccinated now.
“We can’t work from home, this environment is our home.”
At Fire Hall No. 2 on the Downtown Eastside, 11 staff are on duty 24/7 in very tight quarters.
When there are positive COVID-19 tests in the workplace, close contacts must self-isolate — a situation that is currently affecting the organization’s mechanics shop.
Despite the impacts on staffing, VFRS must maintain its essential service to the public.
“We are doing our best to try and be as proactive as we can to reduce the risk to our staff, but we can never reduce it all,” Fry told Global News.
The province’s plan to give first responders priority access to COVID-19 vaccinations stalled when federal officials halted the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in people under the age of 55 due to concerns over blood clots.
“We want to obviously get them immunized,” B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix told Global News on Saturday.
“No one could control what happened with the AstraZeneca.”
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday that B.C. is in the process of ramping up its program to immunize workers, with a focus on first responders.
“I know it’s difficult to be patient,” added Dix.
“They are high priority for us, first responders, we made that clear several weeks ago and they continue to be high priorities.”
Chief Larry Thomas of the Surrey Fire Service said he hopes the province will resume its program to immunize essential workers.
Eight firefighters and police officers in Surrey have contracted COVID-19 recently while 18 others are in self-isolation, according to Thomas, who is concerned that rising cases could impact staffing levels.
Members of the Vancouver Police Department would also like to see the restart of the priority vaccine rollout. Ralph Kaisers, the president of the union representing more than 1,450 front-line police officers, jail guards and special constables, said only a few have received the shot mostly due to being in the right place at the right time.
Meanwhile, many other workers in the Downtown Eastside are already immunized, according to Fry.
“There’s a little bit of a feeling of when’s it our turn?” she said.
Fry said she has no criticism for the B.C. government’s vaccination plan, she is just asking the province to pivot in order to renew the prioritization for first responder vaccinations.