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Head of the class

Rob Shaw: BC’s latest vaccine plan update is an example of the difficult decisions that must be made by provincial health officials – and an unambiguous win for the BCTF.
COVID-19 Update
Chief Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry (BC Government Flickr)

The B.C. government has finally started tackling a thorny issue that’s been a steady undercurrent of this entire public health crisis: In an emergency, not everyone is equal.

We know this to be true, but we try not to say it. When the chips are down during COVID-19, the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, shippers, warehousers, grocers, wholesalers, first responders, pharmacists and supply chain employees are the true pulse of our society, helping the sick, keeping our medicine in stock, laws enforced, supplies flowing, and food on shelves.

On Thursday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made it official: Those groups will get front-of-the-line treatment for extra doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. While the rest of us wait based on age, in five-year cohorts that will stretch until the end of June, essential workers will get an early jab of protection so they can keep doing what they are doing.

This makes sense.

It should have been part of B.C.’s plan from the start, once the elderly and care-home staff were vaccinated. Instead, the government has since December tried to argue that a vaccination schedule based almost entirely upon age was the most logical route.

Thursday marked the climbdown from that position, made possible by the imminent arrival of more than double the vaccines the province had expected.

In addition, bylaw officers, correctional workers, staff in “congregate housing” at places like ski hills and postal workers made the cut.

Included in the new priority front-line workers - “heroes” Premier John Horgan called them - were B.C. teachers.

It’s hard to tell what spurred this decision: a solid scientific case; or months of extraordinary pressure, increasing rhetoric and aggressive lobbying by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

Since last fall, the BCTF has been accusing the government of making school classrooms unsafe, failing to provide proper working conditions, refusing to mandate masks, resisting lower class sizes, and in general putting the safety and livelihoods of students and teachers at risk.

Dr. Henry has dodged and parried the bulk of the BCTF’s critiques, largely leaving the never-ending task of placating the province’s most aggressive union to rookie Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, whose pedigree as a health sector union leader has her well-suited to direct and frank talk with BCTF officials.

This culminated with a BCTF campaign earlier this month that argued teachers, especially among K-7 grades, had much higher rates of WorkSafeBC claims for sick time due to COVID-19 than other sectors of the economy.

The campaign seems to have worked; teachers get to jump the line. Their union celebrated, calling it a great victory for its members.

Dr. Henry said that by vaccinating teachers, other school staff and child care workers, parents would be able to confidently continue to send their children to school and daycare in-person, where socialization is critical to their development.

By contrast, workers left out of the front-line vaccination push included those who maintain our clean water systems, sewers, gas, electricity and utility networks, as well as municipal garbage and recycling staff. BC Ferries employees also didn’t make the cut, even though they operate a transportation network to coastal islands that is the very definition of essential.

It’s possible all these groups could be added later, if the province gets more vaccines. But for now, they will have to wait based on their age.

These are the kind of difficult ethical dilemmas Dr. Henry and others on a working group have faced while setting the evolving rules for COVID-19 vaccination priority. They haven’t always got it right, but at least they’ve been up-front about their decisions, as well as publicly explained, defended and changed them where necessary.

Thursday won’t be the last time the list is altered. Health Minister Adrian Dix has said government wants to remain flexible to allow for it to surge with the unexpectedly large flow of vaccines now brokered by the federal government.

Which means, as with everything else to do with COVID-19, who is considered an essential front-line worker very much remains a work-in-progress.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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