SASKATOON -- The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) is calling on the provincial government to re-evaluate its vaccine rollout plan and make registered nurses who aren’t included in Phase One a priority in Phase Two.

“Registered nurses have been working non-stop for a year, and the vaccination was the light at the end of their tunnel. And now that they’re not even getting the respect that they deserve to be put in Phase Two, it's disappointing,” SUN President Tracy Zambory told CTV News.

Phase Two is focused on vaccinating the general population based on age, starting with people between 60 and 69 years old. 

Group homes for people with intellectual disabilities and emergency shelters, along with people with critical underlying health conditions are also being prioritized in Phase Two.

Zambory said registered nurses should also be part of that group as they have direct patient contact and are at high risk of potentially contracting COVID-19.

“Members that work in medicine wards, that work in obstetrics, that work in mental health are now being made wait until their age range comes up,” she said, adding that’s another concern as the average age of nurses in the province is 49 years and younger, meaning they’re far down the queue.

“That really puts the health care system in a potential crisis because if these people end up becoming ill with COVID, the health care system is not going to be able to function.”

Zambory said the union isn’t asking the province to include all 10,000 nurses in Phase One, but to make them a priority in the second phase as per the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s (NACI) guidelines.

“[Nurses] are very disappointed, they are disheartened, quite sad, very emotional, they’re anxious and tired and disappointed yet again that they’re holding the health care system on their back but yet they’re not getting the respect they deserve to be put into the proper sequencing to be kept safe.”

Health Minister Paul Merriman said decisions on what groups are prioritized and when comes down to supply and who is most at risk of getting COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, we have such a limited supply of vaccines. We only got under 2,000 vaccines in the whole province last week, so we have to allocate those exactly where we are needed the most. That’s in our COVID wards and our long-term care facilities where we’ve had the highest rate of fatalities,” he said.

Merriman has defended the provincial program, insiting age is the highest risk factor and that this is the fastest way to roll out the program.

“We figured if we’re going to get a large amount of vaccines in a short amount of time, the best way to get those out the fastest, to the most people is doing it by age group. We did health care workers right at the beginning, they were the first ones in our provinces to be able to get the vaccine. But, the age categories are just a way that we can strictly get some volume out there, and also targeting the people that are being impacted by COVID,” he said.

Pharmacists included in Phase One rollout

On Tuesday, the province added more health care workers to its priority sequencing for Phase One.

That includes a select number of physicians, pharmacists and other Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) health care providers directly involved in delivering COVID-19 immunizations in Phase Two.

People who work in anesthesia/operating rooms, all other critical care areas, hemodialysis, vaccination teams, radiology technicians, ECG/echo, phlebotomy/lab workers handling COVID-19 specimens and direct home care providers are also being prioritized.

Dawn Martin, CEO of the Pharmacy Association of Saskatchewan, said her organization is pleased with this move.

“We’ve been pushing for this for a long time because we knew that our pharmacists were really concerned about being vaccinated as well as they’re out there, providing these vaccinations to the general public,” she said.

Up to 1,200 pharmacists can be vaccinated in Phase One, according to the province.

Martin said that number covers about 85 per cent of pharmacists working in community pharmacies on a full-time basis.

There are roughly 1,800 pharmacists in the province, she said.

Martin said she hopes this will lead to more recognition of the role pharmacists play within the health care system and the impact they can have in this kind of initiative and with vaccine distribution in general.

“We struggle a little bit for getting that recognition that even though many pharmacists are working in private pharmacies, they are providing public services under the health system,” she said.

Martin said she doesn’t know the timeline of when pharmacists will begin receiving the vaccine, but expects it will start in March so that the province can meet its broader distribution goal of April, May.

She added that COVID-19 vaccines are not available at pharmacies and is asking the public to be patient while those details get sorted out.