A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

British Columbia should change its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans to prioritize essential workers who can’t avoid contact with others, suggests research from mathematical modelling experts at Simon Fraser University.

In a paper out Wednesday, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, the experts outline how their modelling shows vaccinating essential workers earlier could prevent more infections, hospitalizations and deaths than the province’s age-based approach.

The shift in strategy for vaccinating the general population could also save millions in health-care costs and reduce instances of so-called long COVID, or people who experience symptoms for more than 28 days, they say.

B.C. has decided to vaccinate older residents before younger people. The third phase of the campaign is set to start in April and last until June, covering people between the ages of 60 and 79, along with those who are highly clinically vulnerable, such as cancer patients.

The new modelling shows prioritizing workers in essential services including teaching, retail, food production and law enforcement could reduce the amount of virus circulating in communities and provide “a significant level of indirect protection for older adults,” the paper says.

Paul Tupper, a mathematics professor and co-author of the paper, said it might seem counterintuitive to shift away from prioritizing older people at greater risk of severe illness, but the best way to protect them is to keep the prevalence of COVID-19 down in the general population.

“A very effective way of doing that is vaccinating people that have lots of contacts as part of their job,” he said in an interview.

A key consideration is that although the vaccines approved in Canada so far are effective, five to 10 per cent of people who get both doses may not be protected, along with those who decline receiving the shot, Tupper said.

That means as many as 20 to 30 per cent of people targeted in the next phase of B.C.’s immunization campaign may not be protected from getting sick with COVID-19, he said, but it’s possible to prevent exposure by reducing transmission among people in greater contact with others.

The study concludes that vaccinating B.C.’s essential workers sooner could prevent up to 200,000 infections and 600 deaths, while saving about $230 million in health-care costs.

The researchers’ modelling relied on estimates of social contact among 15 age groups from infants to 79-year-olds in different settings, such as home, work and school, as well as survey data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to estimate the distribution of essential workers by age group.

They ran simulations for five scenarios in B.C.’s vaccine rollout, considering varying levels of vaccine efficacy when it comes to blocking transmission in addition to providing protection for the person who gets the shot.

The found an oldest-first strategy is only best to prevent deaths when the vaccines’ efficacy against transmission is “extremely low” and when the reproductive number for the virus is high, meaning on average each person infected leads to more than one additional case.

While B.C.’s case numbers have plateaued rather than declined in recent weeks, they’re not growing exponentially, said Tupper, and mounting evidence suggests the approved vaccines do prevent infection and block transmission rather than simply protect against symptomatic illness.

When asked for comment, the B.C. Health Ministry referred to an answer given at a news briefing on Tuesday by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry when she stuck by the plan to begin an age-based vaccination campaign in the spring, saying the approach has been “supported across the world.”

B.C. officials would consider changing the plan to include essential workers if enough doses of vaccine became available, she said.

Organizations representing teachers and dentists in B.C., as well as Metro Vancouver bus drivers, have said their members should be prioritized because of their contact with the public.

Kim Novak, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1518, which represents grocery and retail workers, said Wednesday there’s been a recent uptick in cases among members. Anxiety has increased with the news that several faster-spreading variants have reached B.C., she added.

Novak said she agreed that the most vulnerable residents, and those who are most at risk of dying, need to be vaccinated first. But she said front-line workers must be prioritized if the province’s vaccine supply grows.

“In some cases, our members are interacting with hundreds of people a day and thousands of people a month, and so to reduce exposure and to reduce transmission, we feel strongly that there should be prioritization when more vaccines come available for front-line workers.”

The province reported 456 new cases of COVID-19 and two more deaths Wednesday, pushing the death toll from the illness in B.C. to 1,338.

There have been 230,875 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered, including more than 62,000 second shots.

The first phase of B.C.’s immunization campaign focused on health-care workers in hospitals, paramedics, residents and staff at long-term care homes, and remote Indigenous communities.

Coronaviruspublic health

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

The new 3,500 hectare conservancy in Tahltan territory is located next to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (BC Parks Photo)
New conservancy protects sacred Tahltan land near Mount Edziza Provincial Park

Project is a collaboration between Skeena Resources, conservation groups and the TCG

Mabel Todd, 83, of the Nak’azdli First Nation, leads a group of family members and advocates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as they walk along the so-called Highway of Tears in Moricetown, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Province, feds fund full cell service along ‘Highway of Tears’ following years of advocacy

A ‘critical milestone in helping prevent future tragedies’ after at least 10 Indigenous women murdered, missing along the route

Erin O’Toole, Conservative Party of Canada leader, answered questions during a Terrace District Chamber of Commerce event on April 6, 2021. (Screenshot/Terrace District Chamber of Commerce Facebook)
Erin O’Toole discusses Terrace issues during virtual event

Federal Conservative leader answered questions during a Terrace & District Chamber of Commerce event

Tree; Burns Lake library. (Laura Blackwell photo/Lakes District News)
Dragon Tree christened

The Burns Lake Public Library contest for dragon and tree names has… Continue reading

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
UVic, women’s rowing coach deny former athlete’s allegation of verbal abuse

Lily Copeland alleges coach Barney Williams would stand close to her and speak aggressively in the sauna

Librarian Katie Burns with the Fraser Valley Regional Libraries poses for a photo in Chilliwack on June 18, 2019. Monday, April 12, 2021 is Library Workers’ Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 11 to 17

Library Workers Day, That Sucks! Day, and Wear Your Pyjamas to Work Day are all coming up this week

Most Read