Island teachers, police, firefighters happy to finally book vaccines

Vancouver Island teachers expressed relief Monday as Island Health prepared to vaccinate thousands of teachers, childcare workers, police and firefighters this week.

Tillicum Elementary Grade 5 teacher Tracey Crystal, 44, said teachers have been waiting for this day.

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“I’m so excited to just have a chance to get in there and be protected as part of this B.C. vaccine rollout and to protect my own family — my husband and children at home, and my father who is going through cancer treatment,” said ­Crystal, who was scheduled for her shot at Eagle Ridge Community ­Centre in the West Shore on Monday evening.

Island Health contacted school districts, licenced childcare operators and municipal governments that oversee police officers and firefighters on Friday with vaccination-registration instructions through the province’s Get Vaccinated system on Saturday.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for Island Health, said Friday the target is to have people in all four groups vaccinated by mid-month with a first dose.

Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria ­Teachers’ Association, said teachers, educational staff, custodians and others learned of the vaccination effort through superintendents and principals on Friday. “I registered ­Saturday morning as well as many of my colleagues. We got a text or an email by Saturday afternoon with booking times.”

Waldron booked for May 11. In the few moments that she considered what time slot to pick, many had disappeared.

“I paused to look at my calendar for one minute and the time that I had clicked on was no longer there, and there was one three hours later, so like you kind of have to book the next one available.”

With physical distancing not possible in our classrooms, being vaccinated “is just a huge relief,” she said.

A rising number of COVID-19 exposure incidents in schools and increasing cases in the community have left some teachers with anxiety “that is debilitating to such an extent that they they’re not willing to come to work,” Waldron said.

Sooke School District Superintendent Scott Stinson said all district staff were notified they could register on the weekend — about 1,700 people — and most have booked.

“It’s been a long time in ­coming,” said Stinson. Staff are encouraged to take evening and weekend appointments, and when that’s not possible, there will be coverage by onsite staff, he said.

The original vaccination ­rollout for essential workers including teachers and first responders was stalled when Health Canada requested a review of AstraZeneca because of reports of rare vaccine-related blood clots. In Island Health, it was deferred again as doses were allotted first to their counterparts in hotspots on the mainland.

Rising case counts in the community after spring break have weighed heavily, said Stinson, who received his AstraZeneca vaccine through a pharmacy. In the Sooke school district, there were about three exposures prior to spring break and about 15 in the weeks following.

“So when we get news like this that allows us to move forward in a positive way, that certainly brings that [anxiety] down.”

Victoria Police Const. Cam MacIntyre said front-line officers have been working throughout the pandemic in challenging environments, often requiring close contact with members of the community.

“We’re looking forward to the opportunity for all of our staff to be vaccinated through Island Health,” said MacIntyre.

Saanich Deputy Fire Chief Dan Wood said the official call to register and book vaccines has been greeted with a mix of joy and relief.

Firefighters are first responders who attend the same calls as paramedics who received their vaccinations earlier, said Wood. At the same time, firefighters understand why the province wanted doses to go to first responders in hot spots on the mainland.

“But certainly there is a great deal of relief … now that we’ve been provided priority access to vaccinations,” he said.

For a few weeks now, firefighters and police officers within 20 minutes of a vaccination clinic have been offered Pfizer doses that are left over at the end of the day, since vials must be used once thawed.

Others, like Wood, took advantage of the AstraZeneca doses that were available for a brief time through pharmacies. Some working in rural regions have been vaccinated through whole-community vaccination programs.

Island Health had vaccinated more than 300,000 people on the Island as of Friday, the majority with first doses. The aim now is to ramp up vaccinations to 9,000 a day from about 6,000.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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