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York Region's paramedics should not have to wait months for vaccine: union

'They need the vaccine now ... It doesn't make sense, from any perspective, why paramedics should be excluded,' says Katherine Grzejszczak, president of CUPE Local 905

The union representing York Region's paramedics is calling on the province to reconsider its decision not to immunize ambulance crews during the first round of COVID-19 vaccines to instead make them wait until early spring. 

Frontline medical staff at hospitals, as well as long-term care staff, essential caregivers and residents, began receiving the vaccine at the immunization clinic at Southlake Regional Health Centre since last week, but not paramedics. 

The head of Ontario's COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force, Ret. Gen. Rick Hiller, has made it clear that paramedics will have to wait a few months to receive the vaccine because there are only so many doses to go around.  

"They will be picked up in the latter part of phase 1, March, into the front part of phase 2, which is April or May," said Hiller. 

Katherine Grzejszczak, president of CUPE Local 905 representing York Region paramedics, said that delay is unacceptable. Paramedics are frontline medical workers just like the staff at the hospital or long-term care homes and are being exposed to the coronavirus and falling ill while fulfilling their duties, she said. 

"They need the vaccine now ... It doesn't make sense, from any perspective, why paramedics should be excluded," said Grzejszczak. "Paramedics need access to this vaccine so they can continue to be healthy and provide 911 service."

Due to COVID-19 exposure, enough paramedics in York Region have been falling ill or going into isolation that it is causing staff shortages, and is requiring crews to give up some of their holiday time to compensate, she said. 

That last part makes the vacation scandal that has caused the resignation of finance minister Rod Phillips on Thursday particularly galling, said Grzejszczak.

"What does that say to frontline workers who have been working over the holidays instead of being with their families?" she said.
York Region's medical officer of health, Dr. Karim Kurji, has said he believes that the availability of vaccine doses will grow significantly as more candidates are approved for distribution in Canada. But until then, the supply remains quite limited.

Given that limited supply, if the government yields to the union's demands to make sure paramedics receive the vaccine immediately, it follows some people who have already been given priority for immunization would be forced to wait instead. 

"That is up to the provincial government to figure out," said Grzejszczak.

"These are not issues we have any control over. Frontline paramedics are just frustrated about how the government, time and time again, does not consider them a priority, and the fact we have had to organize to push back on this."