More than 300,000 front-line workers in B.C., such as teachers, child-care workers, grocery store staff and first responders, will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine next month as the province moves ahead with its vaccination plan.
The Ministry of Health said people in priority groups will receive their first dose of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in April. Those groups include:
K-12 educational staff.
Grocery store workers.
First responders like police, firefighters and emergency transport workers.
Wholesale and warehousing employees.
Bylaw and quarantine officers.
Correctional facility staff.
Cross-border transport staff.
Workers living in shared housing in places like ski hills.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said the age-based rollout is ahead of schedule and that progress, combined with the incoming supply of AstraZeneca vaccines, means the province can move to vaccinate those working in specific front-line industries.
The province said it expects to receive about 340,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of May and it plans to use a combination of community pharmacists, existing clinics and mobile clinics at some worksites to administer the vaccine to the workers.
"We know this has been an extremely challenging time for front-line workers … they have gone to work day after day, day after day. They are the true heroes we want to immunize at this time," said Premier John Horgan.
Updated timeline for age-based vaccines
The province also announced more details on the accelerated timeline for people receiving their vaccines based on their age. The new schedule shows people from 18 to 59 all eligible by the end of June, an update that more clearly explains how the province plans to meet its target of first doses for every eligible adult in the province by July 1.
The next age cohort on the list, which includes people 79 and over, as well as Indigenous people 55 and over, will be able to call to book a vaccine appointment as of Saturday.
People with underlying health issues — including organ transplant recipients, those undergoing chemotherapy or those taking immunosuppressants — should be eligible this month or next, according to the province.
Concerns about blood clots affecting the lungs or heart have led some countries to suspend the use of certain lots of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said this week the conditions can sometimes be associated with the disease itself.
From an estimated 17 million doses of the vaccine, blood clots have occurred in 37 cases as of March 15, she said.
Restrictions still unlikely to change soon: Henry
Henry issued a stern reminder Thursday that any of the approved vaccines, while preventing serious illness and death, still do not prevent transmission of COVID-19. Those who are currently vaccinated and those who get their first shot in coming weeks need to continue to follow the public health guidelines, she said.
Asked whether B.C. will ease restrictions as more and more people get their shots, Henry said change still isn't likely for several more weeks.
"It is a very tenuous time ... we've been rumbling along at a very high level, for us, of cases in our community.
"There's going to be very little change in the next two months, but the more people that are immunized ... that gets us that much closing [to easing restrictions]."
'Huge relief' for employees
Front-line workers and their employers have been pushing to be higher on the vaccination list since the campaign began in December. More recently, they asked to be next in line after seniors.
"I join all of my teacher colleagues in expressing huge relief," said Teri Mooring, the president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, in response to Thursday's change.
The highest-risk categories of worksites were identified through a task force established by Henry last November. They include places where poultry, fruit and fish are processed, as well as agricultural operations and large industrial camps where close living quarters make isolation and quarantine difficult.
In terms of booking vaccines, the province is going to begin implementing online booking as of April 6. The health ministry said digital registration will replace the five regional call centres, which are being phased out by April 18.