Direct-support staff who support individuals with developmental disabilities – including many involved with Semiahmoo House Society in South Surrey – should be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine, says the head of UNITI. (File photo)

Direct-support staff who support individuals with developmental disabilities – including many involved with Semiahmoo House Society in South Surrey – should be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine, says the head of UNITI. (File photo)

Support workers for those with disabilities left behind in B.C. vaccine-rollout ‘oversight’

UNITI CEO Doug Tennant says misunderstanding is putting vulnerable people at greater risk

Support staff who work with people who have developmental disabilities should be given the same priority for the COVID-19 vaccine as other frontline workers, says the head of UNITI, a partnership of societies – including Semiahoo House Society – that provide services and supports for people with disabilities and their families.

Doug Tennant took to social media Monday (April 5) to express concern about the exclusion, which he describes as an oversight by government and health officials that is putting both direct-support workers and the people they support at greater risk.

“These are workers who provide close personal care to disabled people who often cannot wear masks, are at much higher risk, and, at this point, have not been vaccinated (waiting for their letters allowing them to do so),” Tennant said in his tweet.

“It does set up situations which are not as safe as they could be,” Tennant elaborated to Peace Arch News Tuesday.

“Government and Fraser Health either doesn’t understand the work that direct-support workers do… or they believe that those employees are being vaccinated as healthcare workers, which is not true.”

Fraser Health officials said it is the Ministry of Health that determines who is prioritized for immunizations. Ministry officials said Tuesday that the selection of frontline workers is based on the known risk of transmission, as well as the nature and size of the workplace environment, including if workers must live or work in congregate settings.

B.C. health officials announced on March 18 that frontline workers, including police, firefighters, child-care, grocery store, postal and K-12 education staff would start getting the vaccine this month.

READ MORE: B.C. emergency, grocery, school staff get COVID-19 vaccine starting April

The groups were identified by the COVID-19 Workplace Task Group and public health. They also include bylaw and quarantine officers, manufacturing workers, wholesale and warehousing employees, staff in congregate housing such as ski hills, correctional facilities staff and cross-border transport staff.

In announcing the move, Premier John Horgan credited being ahead of schedule on age-based community vaccinations and the arrival of the AstraZeneca vaccine in enabling the parallel system for frontline workers to proceed.

(Due to concerns with use of the latter in those younger than 55, the parallel program was paused last week.)

People deemed clinically extremely vulnerable were to start receiving letters enabling them to book vaccination appointments as of March 29, a further announcement promised.

Tennant said he believes part of what led to the exclusion of support workers from the priority list is a continued misunderstanding of both the work that’s being done in the community-living sector – and within congregate settings – and the rights of people with developmental disabilities to be treated equally.

Many believe that community living falls under healthcare, and therefore that anything happening in the health sector is also happening in community living, he said.

“And that’s simply not the case.”

Despite the work they do and the risks to themselves and those they support, UNITI’s direct-support workers – there are around 150 – he said, are having to follow the guidelines for the general population and wait until their age group is called.

“It’s not a good situation.”

As an example of the “weird way that the system is set up,” UNITI staff who support people with acquired brain injury services – which are health-funded – have been vaccinated, he said.

Ministry officials told PAN that all workers will get the vaccine ahead of schedule; that more details about industries and sectors prioritized for vaccination will be available in the days and weeks ahead; and that the frontline-worker list will be reviewed based on latest-available data and confirmation of the vaccine supply B.C. is expected to receive in the coming weeks and months.

Tennant is also frustrated that the appointment-booking letters promised to those “clinically extremely vulnerable” – a group that includes people with developmental disabilities – have yet to arrive, while staff in the same group who have conditions such as asthma or diabetes got their go-ahead a week or two ago.

READ MORE: B.C.’s ‘extremely medically vulnerable’ can begin booking COVID-19 shots March 29

“This also speaks to a group of people who are treated differently than other British Columbians because of the custodial systems that we have in place for people with developmental disabilities,” Tennant said.

“When it’s a custodial system, the rights part often gets forgotten or missed. If it was a group that didn’t have the societal barriers… I believe they would have gotten their vaccinations a long time ago.”

– with files from Tom Fletcher

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