They help Toronto get moving, play a critical role in the food supply chain and keep our city safe, but although transit, grocery and emergency services workers are deemed essential, there are growing concerns about their position on the COVID-19 vaccine priority list.
It is widely agreed that healthcare workers are the most vulnerable and should be first in line to get vaccinated. Other frontline workers, including teachers and those in the food processing industry, are slated for phase two of the province’s vaccine roll out, but it’s still unknown when exactly in the months-long phase they’ll get their shots.
“For our members who are working in these industries, who are out there every day, it does press on their minds that they’re going in and ‘Today could be the day I bring it home,’” said Tim Deelstra, spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Locals 175 and 633.
The UFCW represents more than 70,000 employees in Ontario, including in grocery stores, factories, and emergency services. Its leaders are among those calling for priority access to vaccination for those working through the lockdowns and in congregate settings.
“If these people are going to be expected to go in to work and to do those jobs on behalf of all of us, they should be given as much protection as possible,” said Deelstra.
Other workplaces and unions are echoing that same message, including the Canadian Teachers’ Federation that represents nearly 300,000 educators nation-wide.
“In order for schools to stay open, we need to make sure that people are safe in those buildings. One way to do that is to give vaccinations as early as possible to teachers and education workers,” said CTF President Shelley Morse.
The federation says it’s still unclear who will get vaccinated next, after healthcare workers and vulnerable populations.
“We know there’s greater risk in schools and we don’t have the same opportunity to be protected as people who are in the general public,” she explained.
One health expert says, given the province’s approach, it makes sense for educators to be next in line.
“It probably should go to educators,” said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “I’m biased as an educator, but because of the probability that schools can be pandemic accelerators, if we’re trying to have the most strategic application of this precious tool in the short term, in the sense that it will reduce the likelihood of transmission and hospitalization increase, then it makes sense to go for the schools.”
Ontario plans to vaccinate 8.5 million people in the second phase of the vaccine roll out, beginning in March.
However, with Pfizer’s announcement last week that production of its vaccine will be scaled back as it builds more capacity at its Belgian factory, Ontario’s next two shipments will be considerably lighter.
On Monday, Premier Doug Ford said the change would have “a massive impact” on Ontario’s vaccine plans, but it’s still unclear what exact impact it will have on rollout dates.
Meanwhile, requests for vaccine priority are growing.
The TTC tells CityNews it intends to request that all of its workers are vaccinated in phase two as well.
The union representing the city’s police says officers risk exposure to the virus daily during public interactions, including enforcement at illegal gatherings.
“Vaccinating frontline officers will decrease this risk and reduce the strain imposed on police resources when officers are quarantined,” says Jon Reid, President of the Toronto Police Association. “Our intent is not to prevent those people most at risk of getting the vaccination. However, we believe that protecting those who protect us is a priority and that all frontline officers should have access to the vaccine.”
The province is expecting vaccines to be widely available to the public in phase three, currently scheduled for August 2021.