COVID vaccine should be mandatory for health workers: seniors advocate

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COVID-19 vaccinations should be mandatory for everyone who works in health care in the province, says B.C.’s Seniors Advocate.

“I believe it is not unreasonable that when you choose to work in health care, like any profession that includes certain bonafide occupational requirements, that you acknowledge that you will take vaccinations and tests that are required,” Isobel Mackenzie told Postmedia on Monday.

“If there is a health reason why you can’t take that vaccine, and there will be a handful of people with bonafide reasons, then an exception will be made, but it’s not just your personal choice.”

According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, 1,760 people have died from COVID-19 in B.C. since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1032 of those residing in seniors care homes.

Advocates like Mackenzie said the debate over mandatory vaccination for health care workers will continue to be a hot topic for those involved in the health care sector.

“I do not believe that the idea of mandatory vaccination had been abandoned, but it’s a minefield. Everybody is dancing around this question right now.”

B.C.’s provincial health officer has been reluctant to order mandatory vaccinations for health care workers. There is no such requirement for the flu shot. However, when announcing new rules at long term and assisted living facilities last week, Dr. Bonnie Henry said starting next Monday, all volunteers and private care providers, like hairdressers, who work in care homes, must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Vaccinations will not be mandatory for staff in those homes. Instead, unvaccinated staff will be required to wear masks and other PPE while working, and they will be subject to rapid COVID-19 tests three times a week.

That’s welcome news to the B.C. Care Providers Association, which represents more than 250 care homes in B.C. that are operated by private-for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

CEO Terry Lake said the new rules “provide an incentive to staff members to become vaccinated because if you can do your work without having to wear a mask and goggles all the time, that would really be an incentive to get the vaccine.”

Another incentive is an amendment to the province’s single site order, to allow only fully vaccinated staff to work at more than one seniors care home.

Lake said some private operators have gone further by making COVID-19 vaccination a requirement when hiring new workers.

The Ministry of Health has said the average vaccination rate of staff and residents at B.C. care homes is around 80 per cent, but admits the rate in some facilities is lower than needed to keep seniors safe.

That’s why starting next week, all care homes must provide the provincial health office with the names and private medical services plan numbers for all staff, residents and volunteers.

Henry said the information will be used to track which care facilities have low vaccination rates.

“There are pockets where the vaccination rate is considerably lower in some facilities, so we need to know on a facility-by-facility basis,” Henry said.

“This will allow us to focus immunization efforts to support facilities where immunization rates are not as high as they need to be. We will be targeting workers who are not immunized and making sure they have all the information they need to make that informed decision about receiving vaccine or not.”

SafeCare B.C., which promotes injury prevention and safety training for private long-term care and home support workers, is examining ways to protect non-vaccinated workers from harassment from visitors and fellow workers.

Interim CEO Saleema Dhalla said her group is making sure all care home operators and staff understand the new rules and how to communicate them to visitors before they arrive at the facility.

“We really want to make sure that visitors are respectful to the care staff. They have really been under tremendous pressure over the last 17 months and as the guidelines change and with new processes in place, having that respectful communication between visitors and the care staff is going to be very important for us and our members,” said Dhalla.

B.C. health officials reported 123 new cases of COVID-19 on the weekend, including just 30 on Sunday.

Of the new infections, 42 were recorded by Interior Health while Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health each recorded 38. There were five new cases in the Island Health region, while Northern Health reported no new cases.

Health officials noted that more than two million British Columbians, 47.7 per cent of the eligible population, are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Just over 3.65 million, or 78.8 per cent of those 12 years and older, have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Of the 658 active cases, 66 individuals are currently in hospital and 14 are in intensive care.

There were no COVID-19 deaths recorded on the weekend and the provincial death toll remains at 1,760.

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Correction: Interim CEO Saleema Dhalla’s name was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this story.

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