B.C. makes COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for workers in long-term care, assisted living facilities
Amid growing concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant, the B.C. government has decided to make vaccination against COVID-19 mandatory for workers in long-term care homes and assisted living facilities.
The policy was announced Thursday by Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who noted there has been a resurgence in COVID-19 outbreaks in the province's long-term care system in recent weeks.
"We now have eight outbreaks introduced by unvaccinated people," Henry said. "And we've seen spread both to residents and staff, causing illness but also disruption to the lives of people in long-term care."
Three more care homes were added to the list by the end of the day, for a total of 11 active outbreaks in the province.
Officials have faced growing calls to mandate vaccines for care home workers, including from B.C.'s seniors' advocate, but the government spent weeks insisting that requiring unvaccinated employees to use additional personal protective equipment and undergo regular testing would suffice.
Henry said that approach has proven ineffective in the face of COVID-19 variants of concern.
"We have now seen with the transmission of the new variants that we need extra protection in this highly risky situation," the provincial health officer said.
"Even when residents' immunization is high, as it is across the board in facilities in this province, we have seen transmission from unvaccinated staff."
MANDATE DETAILS AND UNION RESPONSE
The new vaccination mandate is being implemented by a pending provincial health order, and will require every employee in long-term care homes and assisted living facilities to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 12.
Until then, Henry said the province will be working with facilities and individual staff members to ensure "every person has access to vaccination and has their questions answered."
Officials acknowledged that some workers may be unable to receive the vaccine for legitimate medical reasons, and said the government will work with those individuals, their employers and unions.
But Henry was clear that for everyone else, getting vaccine protection against COVID-19 will be "a condition of employment." The mandate will also apply to volunteers and personal service workers whose duties require them to enter care homes.
The Hospital Employees’ Union, which represents more than 20,000 workers in long-term care and assisted living, told CTV News it had no plan to contest the order.
“The ministry of health and provincial health officer have obviously studied it pretty carefully around the legal grounds for the action they've taken today,” said union spokesperson Mike Old. “What we've been promised is opportunity to consult over labour relations implications -- we're pretty clear that the policy has to accommodate people who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons, human rights or religious beliefs.”
IMPLICATIONS FOR LEVELS OF CARE
Old pointed out that many workers are exhausted from the mental, physical and emotional strain of working long hours to care for vulnerable seniors who are largely isolated from loved ones, and suggested forcing reluctant staffers to get vaccinated may be the last straw.
“We do have a concern that the policy change has at least the potential to compound a pretty serious staffing crisis we're facing," he said.
But the organization representing care home operators pointed out facilities have often been short-staffed because workers have caught COVID-19 and needed to isolate, also predicting the number of people quitting over the issue would be small.
“This is the best way to protect the people that we care for, and I know it will be very welcome news by operators and by families of elders in care because the anxiety around the Delta variant has been growing,” said BC Care Providers Association president Terry Lake.
“I think it shows the flexibility that's required when you're dealing with COVID. We are learning as we go and Dr. Henry is recognizing the Delta variant is a fierce beast.”
VACCINES PROVING BENEFICIAL DESPITE BREAKTHROUGH CASES
Minister Dix noted that more than 40,000 people working in long-term care, and a "significant number" working in assisted living, have already chosen to take the vaccine.
The impacts have been noticeable. Prior to the spread of the Delta variant, officials credited widespread vaccination among care home residents for helping bring the number of outbreaks from about 50 down to zero.
Even now, Dix said the outbreaks that have been emerging "are not qualitatively the same" as earlier outbreaks. But the response required to contain the spread of the disease, which includes shutting down facilities to family visitors, remains "incredibly disruptive and painful," the minister said.
Four of the latest outbreaks have been in the Interior Health region, where an alarming surge in cases has prompted the return of a local mask mandate, the closure of bars and nightclubs, and a number of other tough measures in the Central Okanagan.
So far, the Brookhaven Care Centre in West Kelowna has recorded 23 cases of COVID-19 involving five residents and 18 staff. Nelson Jubilee Manor has only recorded four cases, but has already suffered one death.
Henry said it would be unfair to place restrictions on people who have not had equal access to the vaccines, but that B.C. now has adequate supplies and availability for those interested.
"We need to make the point to many people that now is the time to get immunized because it is going to have an impact on your ability to do some of those things that you may want to do," she said, using sports games and indoor concerts as examples.
"If you choose not to be immunized, then you don't necessarily have the right to go into a higher risk environment with a bunch of people who have been immunized."
Last month, B.C.'s human rights commissioner argued that businesses and service providers can also require people to provide proof of vaccination in some circumstances.
Kasari Govender's guidance stressed that such policies should only be implemented if "less intrusive means of preventing COVID-19 transmission are inadequate for the setting and if due consideration is given to the human rights of everyone involved."