The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is administered to a personal support worker at the Ottawa Hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 in Ottawa. Doctors in Alberta have signed an open letter asking for prioritized vaccination of health-care staff who work directly with patients on dedicated COVID-19 units. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Alberta doctors ask for vaccine priority for staff in COVID-19 hospital units

Alberta doctors ask for vaccine priority for staff in COVID-19 hospital units

EDMONTON — More than 200 doctors in Alberta have signed an open letter asking for prioritized vaccination of health-care staff who work directly with patients on dedicated COVID-19 units.

The latest statistics from Alberta Health show that there are more than 900 people in hospital, including at least 140 in intensive care units.

“This would indicate that greater than 80 per cent of all patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19 are cared for outside of an intensive care unit,” said the letter put out Wednesday.

“The majority of these patients are in fact looked after on dedicated COVID-19 wards with staff dedicated to their care.”

The doctors, who include primary care physicians, general internists and medical subspecialists, said they have stepped forward to care for patients on the specialized units. They say the units have been operating since last spring.

Nurses, rehabilitation staff and support staff have also been deployed from their regular duties, said the letter.

“Upon starting their shifts they undertake a rigorous process to first sign in to every common area, complete a fitness-to-work assessment, and apply full personal protective equipment [PPE] consisting of a mask, face shield and gown,” said the letter. “For the remainder of their shift every single patient encountered has an active COVID-19 infection.”

The doctors said that means the risk of exposure is continuous.

“We can only speak from a physicians’ perspective, but our ability to staff both COVID wards and our regular medicine units is precarious.”

They said the province needs to prioritize vaccinations to ensure the safety of people who work on the units and to prevent the spread of the disease in hospitals and the community. It’s also important, the doctors added, to maintain capacity in the system with a healthy workforce.

Alberta Health said in a statement that the province has received about 60,000 doses of vaccine and officials are rolling those out as they come in.

“Phase 1A includes the top-priority groups, especially our 28,000 continuing-care residents who are at by far the highest risk of dying,” said the statement from Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

The phase, he said, includes 87,000 people.

“We cannot move on to the next phase when we do not have nearly enough doses yet for the first phase.”

Buick said vaccination priorities are decided by medical experts, including the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, based on the best scientific evidence.

“That evidence shows risk of death due to COVID-19 is by far the highest among older seniors, especially those living in continuing-care facilities,” he said.

The province started with critical health-care staff in hospitals because the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could not be distributed to multiple sites, but Buick added the priority must be on reducing deaths by immunizing continuing-care residents first.

Paramedics have also asked to be on the priority list because they are on the front lines with COVID-19 patients.

Timelines posted online by Alberta Health Services this week show Phase 1B is expected to start in February. It is to include seniors 75 or older, residents over 65 in First Nations communities or Métis settlements, and health-care workers in medical, surgical and COVID-19 units and operating rooms.

Those eligible in Phase 2, which is to run from April to September, are still being determined — although other front-line health-care workers are expected to be included.

Vaccine rollout to the general public in Phase 3 is not expected to start until the fall.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

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