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‘Our members are being exposed daily’: Customs agents in B.C. want COVID-19 vaccine priority

Customs and immigration agents in B.C. say they’re feeling frustrated and forgotten, after being left out of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine priority program for front-line workers.

“Our members have shown up everyday. We are essential; we cannot work from home. We have been on the international front lines of this from the start,” Richard Savage, fourth national vice-president for the Customs and Immigration Union, told Global News.

“It is the province’s job to do the vaccinations. What we want them to know is we are sitting here doing an important job for the people of British Columbia. We feel that we’ve been forgotten or ignored.”

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Members of the union deal with returning travellers at Vancouver International Airport and B.C.’s land borders, and deal with commercial marine and container traffic.

Savage said that puts them face to face with people potentially returning from COVID-19 hotspots. While people entering the country are required to quarantine, Savage said if they pass the virus on to one of his members, it will still get into the community.

“Our members there are being exposed daily to positive cases coming in. These are coming in from COVID hotspots. We have no way of verifying the tests that these people are mandated to have coming in,” he said.

“It’s only a matter of time before the PPE that our members wear fail.”

Click to play video: YVR launches a rapid COVID-19 testing pilot

Savage also argued that not vaccinating customs workers puts the massive flow of international commercial traffic that comes through B.C.’s ports at risk.

He said if a member tests positive, they and their close contacts will all have to isolate for weeks, creating a potential staff shortage and chokepoint at critical ports.

“These are positions that are highly specialized, we can’t just pull people in to do these. So any outbreak for example at the delta or marine port, would significantly back up ship traffic,” he said.

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“At our land borders, at Pacific Highway, the commercial traffic is the third biggest land commercial port in Canada, and the same thing would apply there.”

The province unveiled plans last month to give priority vaccination to front-line workers in key sectors, including educators and childcare workers, police, firefighters and corrections officers.

The mass rollout of that program was put on pause amid concerns about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

However, some front-line workers in COVID-19 hotspots, including teachers in Surrey and the Vancouver Coastal Health region, are being immunized using other vaccines.

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