‘Solemn day’ for B.C. as thousands of health-care workers defy vaccination deadline
Those who choose not to be vaccinated or disclose status to employer risk eventual job loss
As of Oct. 26, health-care workers in B.C. are required to be immunized against COVID-19.
The mandate includes anyone who works in any kind of health-care setting, including students, volunteers, physicians, residents, contractors and all other health-care professionals. It also applies to people who work in home and community care locations, including client homes.
During a media briefing on Tuesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said more than 4,000 health-care workers missed the deadline for mandatory COVID-19 vaccination.
He said those who remain unvaccinated will be placed on unpaid leave and must receive a first dose by Nov. 15 if they want to keep their jobs, unless they have a medical exemption.
"All of us are very solemn about this moment because the requirement to get vaccinated is an absolute necessity in our health-care system but we know the impact on people and on families and we are hopeful and encouraging people to get vaccinated," Dix said
He said a total of 4,090 health-care workers in the province have not yet received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Another 2,000 have been vaccinated with only one dose.
In the Interior, Dix said 1,369 health-care workers are unvaccinated.
"Health authorities are taking steps across B.C. to deal with the challenges presented by this," he said.
The loss of unvaccinated workers in the health-care system, he said, will put extra pressure on hospitals, especially as more patients are being flown out of the Northern region to other areas of the province for care.
"It's an immense thing. I can't tell you the work being done by our ambulance teams, by our nurses, all those involved in patient travel," he said.
'More important' than work
Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. union that represents about 4,500 paramedics in the province, estimates up to 200 of its members remain unvaccinated or haven't reported their vaccine status and risk job loss.
Andrew MacPherson is one of those people. Although he says he loves his work as a paramedic — a job he's done for 13 years — some things "are more important" than his work.
He refuses to disclose his vaccination status to his employer.
"The stakes are high, absolutely high. They're even higher if I lose my human rights to my own privacy and my own right to put whatever I want in my body," he told CBC's On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko.
His concerns about COVID-19 vaccines are similar to those expressed by other vaccine-hesitant people — uncertainties about safety and efficacy, particularly when it comes to the mRNA vaccines created by Pfizer-Biotech and Moderna.
Health officials in B.C., Canada and around the world say the vaccines are safe and adverse effects are rare.
Clifford said he respects people's rights to make their own decisions.
"People have choices and our union absolutely respects people's choices," he said. "But there are laws that are being put in place, statutes that we have to abide by."
"Not all choices come with no consequences," he added.
When the vaccine mandate was announced, the B.C. Nurses' Union (BCNU) was critical of the decision, worrying that in areas where staff are already stretched thin that mandatory vaccines would make the situation worse.
The BCNU did clarify, however, that it does support vaccines and encouraged members to get immunized.
'Significant' impact on ambulance services
If all 200 unvaccinated members of the paramedic union chose to lose their jobs over getting the vaccine, it would have a "significant" impact on ambulance services, a job sector that is already short staffed.
"Losing one paramedic is something we can't accept," Clifford said.
However, he said risking a paramedic's health, or the wellbeing of their families or patients, would also greatly affect service, more so than losing a paramedic because they chose not to get vaccinated.
"I hate to see anybody that's given their life for long periods of time, or any period of time, to serve, be put in those situations that they're making that hard a choice," Clifford said.
"I just hope they're making them for the right reasons ... because the consequences are significant."
B.C.'s Minister of Jobs and Economic Recovery Ravi Kahlon said safety is the priority, especially in health-care settings where people are vulnerable to COVID-19.
"There's going to be consequences for those who choose not to get vaccinated," he said.
He said the B.C. government will invest in the health-care system to mitigate any challenges that arise from workers choosing not to get vaccinated and, ultimately, being let go.
When the health-care worker vaccine mandate announcement was made mid-September, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said outbreaks of COVID-19 are likely to cause much more serious staffing issues.
She also said vaccination rates are higher in the health-care sector than in the general population.