‘A kick in the ass.’ Evidence of managers getting preferential vaccine access over frontline workers piles up

Health workers in the Calgary area who were eligible for “lottery doses” of leftover COVID-19 vaccines had those privileges revoked by Alberta Health Services (AHS)—while managers were still eligible for the leftover vaccines.

Photo by Lisa Ferdinando

The change affects administrative assistants at the Sheldon Chumir and Strathmore Community Care. No explanation is given for why those workers are no longer eligible for leftover vaccines despite their contact with sick patients. Security guards and housekeeping staff are also ineligible for these leftover vaccines despite coming into contact with sick Albertans every day.

“When I questioned why would [the managers] be in the spot over admin the reply I got from management was that this ‘comes from up above and we’re just doing as we're told,’” says a registered nurse in the Calgary zone who asked to remain anonymous.

These AHS managers from the local public health offices take turns going to the immunization sites to check in and see how everything is going, she says.

“Then most of them leave and go back to their regular office or home office. They are out of eligibility scope, so they wouldn’t be vaccinated yet anyways.”The nurse also recalls her colleagues receiving an email back in December 2020 that stated who was eligible for vaccines during Phase 1. The managers of the Southport Tower (the corporate AHS building) were included in that email. 

“They have no client contact at all,” the RN says. “We were told it was based on who is most at risk and who would be with the most at risk clients. So now when I am told the role that what I do isn’t at risk and I shouldn’t be part of this, but now all of a sudden the managers are taking the admin slot when they have no common contact ... It’s kind of like a kick in the ass right?”

“As healthcare workers we want to protect the most vulnerable people, protect the people who need protection—and this to me isn’t it. There are people who need that vaccine more than somebody who has no client contact or care.” 

The news that managers and not admin workers are now part of this leftover vaccine “lottery” pool comes not even a month after AHS announced its vaccine waste mitigation strategy, a plan to avoid wasting leftover vaccines by doling them out in “a fair and equitable manner that can withstand scrutiny about favouritism or conflicts of interest.”

Dr. Lorian Hardcastle, assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary says that having a policy where unused vaccines are given to those most at risk makes perfect sense.

“There are also a lot of health workers who haven't yet received the vaccine,” Hardcastle says. 

Many healthcare workers have been vocal on social media and in trusted circles about the confusion they are feeling in terms of vaccinations.

An oncology nurse at the Cross Cancer Institute, who also wished to remain anonymous, says her hospital is completely off the current vaccine list and likens the AHS decision-making process to “a chicken with its head cut off.”

She alleges that medical directors and staff in Calgary at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre were all vaccinated, but the Cross Cancer Institute was told “it was a mistake, and they shouldn't have been.”

“The emails get sent out to people who are eligible and you have to book your vaccination yourself. Some nurses were chastised for booking because ‘it was obvious the email was a mistake.’ What an absolute disaster communicating what was happening,” she says.

On top of that, there have been two outbreaks in the inpatient unit at the Cross Cancer Institute.

“Our medical director begged for them to immunize us, to no avail. As long as we wear our surgical masks and goggles, and follow protocol, they feel we aren't at risk. But COVID would be a disaster in an immunocompromised facility.” 

The Cross Cancer Institute has patients coming in “all the time” with COVID symptoms, yet it’s impossible to tell if they are true symptoms or side effects of cancer progression. 

“We screen everyone, but people slip through, and sometimes we don't think their symptoms are COVID-related because they are supposed to feel sick on treatment. Then suddenly we end up swabbing them and wondering if our precautions have been enough.”

Hardcastle says that if AHS managers are being allowed to “cut in line” for leftover vaccines it’s distressing for many reasons.

“It obviously affects the morale of those frontline workers, which is already low, given some of the labour activity that we saw earlier last year,” she says. “It's also problematic because of the message it sends to Albertans. I mean, vaccines are scarce, we're all looking for them to be allocated fairly and according to stated policies.”

The AHS media representative for Calgary Zone, James Wood, says the “allegations are unfounded.” He also says the “lottery” system alluded to does not exist and that there is “a rollout with phased eligibility.” 

Yet the memo to healthcare staff does specifically refer to “lottery doses.” 

“On rare occasions, a small number of doses may remain at the end of the day that need to be used within a short time period. In the event this occurs, AHS uses an evolving list of eligible individuals, and who are consistent with the current sequence, who can be offered immunization,” AHS states. 

Celia Shea, a communications officer with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, confirmed to the Progress Report that AUPE was alerted to the situation by members and has verified the claims with multiple frontline health care workers. The union is demanding that the government take action immediately to get frontline workers access to the leftover vaccines.