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Shot of euphoria, a dose of regret: Some health-care professionals who got vaccinated before front-line workers have second thoughts

By: Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Samir Sinha dreamed of the day a safe vaccine would be available.

“We’ve lost patients, and we’ve seen so many colleagues negatively impacted by this catastrophic virus,” said Sinha, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital  in Toronto. 

So when he received the COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 31, he was thrilled. 

While Sinha’s patients are primarily elderly and are at risk of developing  serious illness, he wasn’t scheduled on the front line on COVID-positive units  until late January. But through a lottery, he was eligible for the vaccine  earlier so the dose wouldn’t go to waste. 

That Thursday, Sinha was only given 15 minutes’ notice. He made it in time, rolling up his sleeves next to three front-line workers in long-term care.

It was emotional for Sinha, especially after gruelling months of wearing full  personal protective equipment, watching patients die and colleagues suffer  mentally and physically. But his euphoria quickly turned into guilt.

Vaccine doses, per provincial directives, are still reserved for front-line  workers and residents of long-term-care homes. But excess  doses have been given to other hospital staff if they become available  through a lottery system to avoid wastage, as the vaccine is still not being  offered to the general public. Reports  of hospital administrators and researchers receiving vaccines in Toronto  before those living and working in long-term-care homes — where 81 per cent of  Canada’s COVID-19 deaths in the first wave occurred — have since clouded Ontario’s vaccine rollout, generating complicated feelings among those  inoculated. 

The vaccine, initially a symbol of triumph and hope, has become a reminder of inequality and political failure, leaving some to feel regret instead of joy.  Others have contemplated whether it’s ethical to publicly share they’ve received  the vaccine on social media while many in need await their dose.

Since Dec. 14, when the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were injected into Canadians’ arms, more than 650 Ontario long-term-care residents have died. It’s a figure that has haunted Sinha since he received his dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

“I was thrilled because, do I want to get the vaccine? More than ever  before,” Sinha reflected. “But I also don’t want to jump the queue when I know  that front-line workers in long-term-care homes and patients living in those  homes were at greater risk.”

The debate over the ethics behind vaccine rollout quickly spilled over to social media, where many health-care workers began sharing vaccination selfies or news of their inoculation. 

Dr. Gail Beck, a child psychiatrist at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre,  was among those who were scrutinized when she shared publicly on her blog that  she’s received the vaccine.

“The main thing I felt when I got the call was a sense of duty,” Beck said,  adding the hospital had done its due diligence to vaccinate those who are at a  higher priority first and that she does see younger patients in-person, some  with special needs.

“I thought I was participating in a logical process.” 

But upon reflection on the scrutiny she’d received, Beck said she understands an emergency doctor or a front-line worker would have felt more relieved to have been vaccinated, compared to her situation of working at a largely controlled and COVID-free setting. 

While some have talked about “vaccine envy,” Dr. Alan Drummond, an emergency physician in Perth, Ont., who has yet to be vaccinated, said it’s more than just feelings of jealousy. It’s about ensuring that those who are most at risk are safe first.

“The problem has been the lack of transparency or direct communication with respect to what the (vaccine) rollout plan would look like,” he said. Drummond added that as a front-line worker who deals directly with COVID-19 patients,  watching administrators and non-acute clinical staff get vaccinated first in cities like Toronto and Ottawa through social media has been demoralizing.

“Here we are, seeing COVID-19 patients or potential COVID-19 patients, and we’re not afforded the same level of protection,” Drummond said. “There’s  something wrong with the rollout when it involves people who are frankly not at risk.”

Drummond has yet to receive word on when he will be next in line for a vaccine.

Since receiving his dose at Mount Sinai, Sinha said he has reflected deeply  on his decision to enter the vaccine lottery, especially upon realizing that  many at greater risk would have liked to get vaccinated earlier, but didn’t have  the privilege of access.

“I now look back with a little bit of regret saying, ‘Did I actually take a spot that should have been there for a front-line worker?’ ” Sinha said. 

One thing he doesn’t regret, however, is sharing a photo of his vaccination publicly through social media on New Year’s Day, captioning it: “a shot of  hope.” For Sinha, it’s a way to spread the news of the vaccine among his social  media followers, many of whom are in racialized populations who  have grown distrustful of government policy as they continue to be  disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“When they can see another physician that looks like them and telling them that it’s safe, I think that really sends a strong message to both my patients  and members of the public,” said Sinha, who is of South Asian descent.

Part of assuaging his guilt, he added, is being outspoken about the inequality in vaccine rollout.

“I will do harm by remaining silent.”

Dr. Amber Bocknek was also among many who shared an inoculation selfie on  social media. As someone whose work entails doing house calls for seniors with complicated health problems in Newmarket, getting the vaccine Jan. 7 was a  welcome relief. 

Bocknek proudly shared the photo on her Facebook and Instagram accounts, partly, she said, due to misinformation swirling among her circles on the safety  of the vaccine. 

“It’s stimulating questions, which creates an opportunity for more  education,” Bocknek said.

She added the end goal for health-care workers across the board remains getting as many people vaccinated as possible.

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