Frontline workers in the New Westminster Police Department are relieved they’re finally getting their COVID-19 jabs.
While frontline workers in many neighbouring communities had been receiving their vaccinations in recent weeks, New West police, firefighters and teachers only started getting their shots this week. Frustration and anger among local police came to a head last weekend after several officers were in contact with a suspect who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“Seriously unhappy to learn up to 6 @NewWestPD members have to self-isolate now after finding out a prisoner they dealt with is Covid+. It is quite frustrating our staff still have not been scheduled for vaccination under the @Fraserhealth first responder priority program while most surrounding jurisdictions have,” Deputy Chief Const. Paul Hyland said in a comment posted on Twitter. “Our members are literally putting themselves in harm’s way each shift and often don't control the circumstances in which they interact with public. Really hoping we can make this happen soon!”
Chief Const. Dave Jansen said the New Westminster Police Department had been working on the issue for a while behind the scenes with the province’s police services branch and Fraser Health, but Hyland’s tweet drew media attention to the issue.
Jansen said he completely agreed elderly folks and people with medical conditions should have been prioritized for vaccinations, but frustration began to mount as frontline workers in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and in hotspots across Fraser Health started were deemed priority groups and getting their shots – and New Westminster police, fire and education officials had received no firm timeline for their vaccinations.
“Then what’s happening is we are seeing everybody has gotten vaccinated, from what I could tell, from Whistler out to Chilliwack. So you name it – Maple Ridge, Port Moody, White Rock. All these areas had been vaccinated or had been given the go-ahead to be vaccinated, and we still hadn’t got a firm date for New Westminster,” he told the Record. “It just became very frustrating to try and understand.”
In an email to the Record, one local cop stated officers do their best to socially distance, wear a mask and sanitize and wash their hands frequently, but they have to enter several houses on each shift – places where they could potentially be exposed to people who have COVID-19, including people from cities in the region considered to be hotspots. In addition to concerns about their own safety, police officers were concerned about the risk of getting the virus and spreading it to their families and other community members – including people at Royal Columbian Hospital.
“Royal Columbian is a major trauma centre for the region. We are there all the time,” Jansen said. “Even the nursing staff were surprised that we were not vaccinated because we are in and out of that hospital all the time. And the risk that brings not only to us but also to them as we are coming in there. It just seemed odd.”
After last weekend’s media coverage, action started happening on the vaccination front – much to the relief of local cops.
According to Jansen, Vancouver Coastal was able to provide some AstraZeneca shots for some NWPD members and Fraser Health’s vaccination clinic at Anvil Centre had about 10 or 12 extra doses available last Sunday.
“I went down there to talk to some of our members who were going down there. There was complete relief,” he said. “Then on Monday, we got the call from Fraser Health that they were rolling out the program for all frontline staff. Not all of our staff get it, but the ones that have interaction with the public are eligible to go get it now. So that’s good.”
Jansen said he isn’t angry at Fraser Health, as he can only imagine what it’s going through with the rollout of vaccinations across such a vast region, adding that the situation was difficult to understand because so little information was being provided.
“I am very thankful that Fraser Health listened and they were able to ramp it up by a week or two and that all our teachers and firefighters and police officers get vaccinated,” he said. “I think that’s the best thing for the safety of our community.”
On the frontlines
The New West police officers who came into contact with a COVID-positive man have all been cleared to return to work, Jansen said.
“None of them caught COVID from the interaction,” he said. “I was confident that was probably the case because they were wearing appropriate PPE, but it just was one of those things that highlighted the risks that frontline personnel face.”
Along with the physical toll associated with COVID, Jansen said frontline officers have had to deal with the stress of reporting to duty and dealing with members of the public who may potentially have the virus. He experienced that firsthand recently, when the NWPD’s management went out on the road for a shift, and a call went out about a man walking down the street with a machete.
“Just pure luck, we happened to be right there, and the individual is coming walking down the sidewalk. So I am wearing a mask, but you don’t have time to get your gloves and get your visor. You’ve got to hop up and get engaged right away,” he said. “So it’s a real reminder, a lot of times, and I’m sure the firefighters are in similar situations, where you just don’t have that time to get as geared up as you’d want to. … It was just an added level of stress that I didn’t think they needed to have to deal with.”
While some older members of the NWPD, including Jansen, are in age groups that have been able to get their COVID-19 vaccinations, that wasn’t the case for younger members who didn’t qualify for the AstraZeneca rollout.
“We had a lot of staff that are just too young, especially on our frontlines,” he said. “When you get hired as a police officer, the first place you go for a good five-plus years, usually is you go to patrol, and you are the frontline responders. But they are usually going to be those 22- to 27-year-olds. Most of our staff on the frontlines are under 30 years of age.”
Jansen estimated seven to 10 NWPD employees, including police officers and civilian staff, have had coronavirus in the past year.
“I think we still have one individual who is still experiencing the effects of it. Everyone else has returned to work,” he said. “At one stage we did have three members of our traffic section, all at one time, out. That was pretty significant for us. I don’t know how that compares to other police departments around, but for us it is impactful. It wasn’t something that we couldn’t continue on operations, but it certainly is something that is impactful.”