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West Van, North Van teachers say they should get higher priority for COVID vaccines

Teachers concerned as COVID cases surge in North Shore schools
Vaccination Clinic 03 MW web
Covid vaccination being administered at the North Vancouver Lloyd Avenue clinic March 22. Teachers say they should get first crack at any leftover doses.

Teachers in North and West Vancouver are joining calls from colleagues around the Lower Mainland to step up vaccinations for school teachers and staff.

The pressure from teachers to move up their vaccinations comes as COVID cases are surging in the Lower Mainland, including the North Shore.

It also comes as a large number of schools in North and West Vancouver have been hit with notices of coronavirus exposures in the weeks following spring break.

“My inbox is filling up,” said Renee Willock, president of the West Vancouver Teachers Association.

Teachers promised vaccines as frontline workers

In March, the government promised teachers, along with other frontline workers including police, firefighters and grocery store employees, that they would be prioritized for shots using the AstraZeneca vaccine. Soon after, however, public health officials halted that vaccine for anyone under 55 while regulators look into concerns about the vaccine being linked to very rare but serious blood clots in the brain in younger people, especially younger women. That meant the program that would have seen vaccines going to teachers across the province was put on hold.

“Nothing has happened,” said Willock. Meanwhile, “we’re inundated with exposure notices.”

Willock adds “we know North Shore families went to Whistler” over spring break – adding to concerns about the Brazilian variant being introduced to local schools, especially among high school students.

Willock said there have been cases of teachers contracting COVID at local schools – as evidenced by WorkSafeBC claims that have been accepted from local teachers.

According to WorkSafeBC, after health care, the education sector has had the most COVID-related WorkSafeBC claims.

Carolyn Pena, president of the North Vancouver Teachers Association agreed.

“Teachers have continued to work directly with students in full classrooms since September,” said Pena, in a statement put out by the B.C. Teachers Association. “With the sharp rise in cases and the widespread prevalence of variants now in BC, the risk to the health of teachers and their families is escalating. Access to vaccinations is vital to ensuring the health and safety of teachers, so that schools can continue to support students.”

Teachers want first crack at leftover jab doses

Willock said she’s hoping health authorities could do something creative – like put teachers on a special call list to get first crack at any vaccine doses leftover at clinics at the end of the day. Even if that was only 10 teachers a day, in a small district like West Vancouver, “that would make a difference,” she said.

Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, deputy chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said health officials do have a system for calling in people eligible for vaccine if there are leftover doses. But he added who those people are isn’t being made public.

Willock said if teachers were added to that list “the teachers would be lined up to be there.”

On Monday, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province's medical health officer, said main focus of the vaccination program continues to be on keeping as many people as possible from getting sick, and especially from being hospitalized, needing ICU care or dying from COVID-19.

But she asked workers whose special vaccination programs have been halted to be patient. "We cannot go to everybody at once," she said.

Teachers who are 55 and older have been getting shots through the AstraZeneca parallel program currently being offered to those 55-65, Willock said.

“And I am encouraging everyone to get the first vaccine that they can get. Do not wait because there might be something different or better.”

Willock said teachers are “delighted” with the recent change requiring students in Grades 4 and above to wear masks at all times in school. In West Vancouver, “it’s been very smooth,” she said. “There haven’t been a lot of difficulties shifting to this.”

While some parents have been calling for school closures in the face of increasing COVID cases, the province has so far rejected that option, saying students need to be in school for both academic and social reasons and that more students contract COVID when they aren’t in school.

Willock said teachers agree with that. “We agree having schools open is a good thing,” she said. But she added that if keeping schools open is a priority, vaccinating school staff should be as well.

Essential workplaces, including schools, are exempt from the new Public Health Act WorkSafeBC closures, which allow for workplaces to be closed when three or more workers test positive for COVID-19.