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Dentists, teachers disappointed they won't be prioritized for vaccine in B.C.

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VANCOUVER — Dentists, bus drivers and teachers are among the essential workers who are disappointed they won't be given priority to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in British Columbia.

B.C. rolled out its vaccination plan on Friday, revealing that after the most vulnerable groups have been immunized, shots will be given out according to age, with the oldest residents first in line.

That means many people who have not been able to work from home during the pandemic, including grocery store workers, police officers and mail carriers, will have to wait to get the vaccine along with others in their age group.

The British Columbia Dental Association has written a letter to Premier John Horgan strongly urging him to include dentists in Stage 2 of the vaccination plan, alongside family doctors and medical specialists.

"Dentistry is an essential service. More importantly, dental care, including aerosol-generating dental procedures, are provided to patients who cannot wear a mask during treatment," said association president Dr. Anthony Nadolski in the letter.

"B.C. dentists continue to do everything they can to ensure dental offices are safe for patients and staff. Early access to vaccines will ensure continued access to urgent and emergency dental care."

Other agencies such as the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have included dentists and dental workers in Stage 2 along with doctors and specialists not directly involved in providing care to COVID-19 patients, Nadolski added.

More recently, Ontario included dentistry in its second stage because dentists generally provide in-person care and many dental procedures are urgent and cannot be delayed, he said.

The B.C. Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

The province initially suggested that people delivering essential services such as teachers, grocery store workers and those in law enforcement could be prioritized to get the vaccine. 

But when the finalized plan was released on Friday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said scientific evidence supports an age-based approach because older populations are at much higher risk of infection and death from COVID-19.

Currently, hospital workers, Indigenous communities and long-term care home residents, staff and essential visitors are among those being vaccinated in Stage 1 of the plan.

Stage 2 will begin in February and include people 80 and over, Indigenous seniors over 65, general practitioners and medical specialists.

In April, the province will start vaccinating the general public according to five-year age groupings, starting with seniors aged 75 to 79 before moving on to those aged 70 to 74 and so on.  

However, Henry added that the approval of more vaccines may mean the province's plan could be revised to vaccinate essential workers between April and June.

Metro Vancouver bus drivers are "very disappointed" they will not be prioritized while they risk their lives to provide transportation to the public, said Balbir Mann, president of Unifor Local 111.

The union is calling on the provincial government to immediately change the plan and include transit operators in Stage 2.

"We're basically frontline workers, taking people to work and grocery shopping. Our members are real heroes," said Mann. "They're putting their lives in front of this to help out the general public."

Teachers are also disappointed there is no prioritization for front-line workers who have kept schools, public services and the economy open, said B.C. Teachers Federation President Teri Mooring.

"However, the vaccine supply limit is beyond our control and those among us who are most vulnerable of death and serious illness must be vaccinated first," she said in a statement. 

Hopefully more vaccines are approved and the immunization strategy will be appropriately adjusted and accelerated, she said.

Mooring added if teachers are not prioritized for vaccines, the government must take immediate action to improve safety measures in schools, including mandatory masks, better physical distancing and ventilation upgrades.

"There is no denying that teachers are stressed, anxious and even afraid. We do not have the layers of protection in our schools that exist in other environments."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2021.

Laura Dhillon Kane, The Canadian Press