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

A donated towel warms a merlin chick. Photo supplied
MARS Moment: 2021 shaping up to be a record-setting year for animal rescues

Submitted by Jane Sproull Thomson Special to Black Press With the pandemic,… Continue reading

A 41-person air task force, including 12 members from 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron at 19 Wing Comox, seized more than $3 million CND worth of cocaine as part of Op Caribbe. Photo by Canadian Armed Forces Operations/Facebook
19 Wing Comox crew involved in three-tonne cocaine seizure worth more than $293 million

12 members from 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron involved in Op Caribbe

File photo of Gord Johns during World Oceans Day.
Courtenay-Alberni MP outlines priorities for federal budget

Universal pharmacare, affordable housing and Pacific wild salmon are some of the… Continue reading

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations in Gold River area

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

Volunteers sort through bottles and cans during Saturday's fundraiser for hospice. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Comox Valley hospice holds drive-through bottle drive

Bike team is fundraising for the annual Cycle of Life tour on Vancouver Island

Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan presides as Speaker of the B.C. legislature, which opened it spring session April 12 with a speech from the throne. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. NDP promises more health care spending, business support in 2021 budget

John Horgan government to ‘carefully return to balanced budgets’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A lady wears a sticker given out after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count slows after last week’s peak

3,219 new cases since Friday, 18 additional deaths

North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas did not violate the municipality’s code of conduct by posting a sexist meme on Facebook, council concludes. (File photo)
B.C. municipality to take no action against councillor who posted sexist meme

Tek Manhas’s meme doesn’t violate North Cowichan council’s code of conduct, municipality concludes

NIC’s new president Lisa Domae assumed the role April 12. Domae has worked at NIC since 2000, most recently as executive vp academic and chief operating officer. Photo supplied
New North Island College president launches draft strategic plan

North Island College’s new president, Lisa Domae, kicked off her first official… Continue reading

Killer whales surface near Sebastion Beach in Lantzville on Sunday, April 11. (Photos courtesy Ella Smiley)
Chainsaw and friends near the beach thrill orca watchers in Lantzville

Jagged-finned orca named Chainsaw and 17 others spent hours off Sebastion Beach this weekend

Nootka Sound RCMP and DFO Conservation and Protection Officers seized this 30 foot vessel, fishing gear and equipment as well as Chinook salmon, salmon roe, rock fish and ling cod after an investigation on Sept. 11. A judge in Campbell River on February hit the owner and his accomplices with significant fines, a ban on holding fishing licences and loss of equpment, including the boat’s motor and trolling motor. RCMP photo
Washington State trio’s fisheries violations the worst veteran officer has seen in 20 years

Judge bans three men from fishing or holding a fishing licence anywhere in Canada

—Image: contributed
Indoor wine tastings still allowed in B.C., not considered a ‘social gathering’

“Tasting is really just part of the retail experience. The analogy I use is you wouldn’t buy a pair of pants without trying them on.”

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is raising its estimate for the number of businesses that are considering the possibility of closing permanently. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Small business struggling amid COVID-19 pandemic looks for aid in Liberals’ budget

President Dan Kelly said it is crucial to maintain programs to help businesses to the other side of the pandemic

Most Read