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COVID-19: B.C.'s ferry workers, transit operators frustrated at being left off priority vaccine list


COVID-19: B.C.'s ferry workers, transit operators frustrated at being left off priority vaccine list

Bus drivers and ferry workers say they often come into close contact with the public, including some who refuse to wear masks

[Balbir Mann outside the Unifor union office in New Westminster.] Balbir Mann outside the Unifor union office in New Westminster. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Transit operators, taxi drivers and ferry workers are fuming that they are not among the front-line workers being prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine, saying they play an essential role in transporting people to medical appointments and ferrying goods and services to remote communities.

Graeme Johnston, president of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union, said ferry workers are “incredibly disappointed and dismayed” they are not going to be early recipients of the vaccine.

COVID-19: B.C.'s ferry workers, transit operators frustrated at being left off priority vaccine list

The B.C. government announced last Thursday that 300,000 front-line workers will get Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine starting in April. Those workers include police, firefighters, emergency transport workers, K-12 staff and child-care workers, grocery store staff, postal workers, bylaw officers, manufacturing workers, wholesale/warehousing employees, staff living in congregate housing at places such as ski hills, correctional facilities officers, and cross-border transport staff.

Johnston said there are approximately 200 employees who live in communal settings on ferries that service northern routes such as Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert.

“We’re incredibly disappointed about those (workers) in particular because they are serving primarily Indigenous communities,” Johnston said. “It falls in the category of congregate living, it’s an essential service, and it is servicing vulnerable communities.”

Johnston said he shared his concerns with Transportation Minister Rob Fleming last week, who promised to raise the issue with Health Minister Adrian Dix.

B.C. Ferries is currently dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak at the Horseshoe Bay terminal as a result of what the agency called “employee-to-employee transmission.”

B.C. Ferries spokesperson Tessa Humphries said after contract tracing, public health officials have said the risk to the public is low as employees do not have close contact with the public.

Humphries said the fact that ferry workers were not prioritized for the vaccines shows that B.C. Ferries is a low-risk site. Some of the crew from the Northern Expedition — a vessel that sails between Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii, and Prince Rupert and Port Hardy — have been prioritized for the vaccine, she said.

“We continue to work closely with the province to evaluate all options to vaccinate additional groups within B.C. Ferries, especially those working in remote settings,” Humphries said.

Brian Lalli, an equipment operator who works out of Horseshoe Bay terminal, said he was very concerned to see several of his colleagues test positive for the virus, including one who is still recovering in hospital. Lalli said the nature of the work often makes it impossible to keep an appropriate distance from co-workers. He also said he is regularly approaching passengers not wearing masks to enforce the mandatory mask policy.

Ferry workers traverse back and forth between remote communities, Lalli said, so vaccinating ferry workers also keeps those communities safe.

Balbir Mann, president of Unifor Local 111, which represents 4,200 transit operators across Metro Vancouver, said transit operators also feel left behind by the province’s vaccination rollout for front-line workers.

“We’re very disappointed that with the high level of interaction with the public that we’re not included on the priority list,” Mann said. He acknowledged he hasn’t seen high rates of COVID-19 infections among bus drivers, but noted that, even with a protective barrier, transit operators are typically within two feet of people paying their bus fare. There have also been issues, he said, with people becoming aggressive and yelling at drivers who try and enforce the mandatory mask policy.

Liberal MLAs Renee Merrifield, the opposition health critic and Michael Lee, transportation critic, sent a joint letter to Dix Monday, saying they’ve heard from many transportation workers who feel they’ve been overlooked.

“These groups have been on the frontlines for more than a year now, keeping our province moving, ensuring that British Columbians can get where they need to be and allowing trade to continue during this challenging time,” Merrifield and Lee wrote. “By the nature of their work and at multiple locations, these groups come into contact with numerous people over the course of a shift, many of them with members of the public.” Dix owes these workers an explanation for why they weren’t prioritized for the vaccine, the MLAs wrote.

Some have criticized the province for vaccinating ski hill staff given that they are typically younger and therefore at lower risk of serious health complications related to the virus. However, the province says it is responding to COVID-19 outbreaks in resort towns such as Whistler which saw a major surge in cases — 547 between Jan. 1 and Feb. 2 — largely due to social gatherings off the ski hill and the prevalence of communal housing.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Dix have repeatedly stressed that workers tapped for an earlier jab should not be seen as more essential than others. Rather, the province’s parallel track is focused on high-risk workers in settings where the virus is spreading, which prevents the virus from transmitting to the wider community.

B.C. is expected to receive 340,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines by the end of May. Provincial health officials said Thursday that nearly half a million British Columbians are expected to be vaccinated by mid-April, months earlier than expected due to the province’s decision to extend second doses to four months.

Katie DeRosa

Mar 22, 2021  

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