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B.C. making COVID-19 vaccine a 'condition of employment' for all health-care workers

The new mandatory vaccination order will apply to a wide section of health-care workers, students and volunteers, and will come into effect Oct. 26.

B.C.’s top doctor says she will sign a new order making COVID-19 vaccinations a condition of employment for all health-care workers across the province. 

At a press conference Monday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the new order, set to take effect Oct. 26, would apply to broad group of people working in health care, including all workers, students, physicians, residents, contractors and volunteers.

The new mandatory vaccination rule will apply to everything from health-care clinics and hospitals to home and community care settings. The order will not apply to people working outside a health authority’s jurisdiction, such as physiotherapists or physicians with a private practice.

“I recognize there are some rare instances where people have a medical condition that prevents them from being fully vaccinated,” said Henry Monday. 

“We will have a process in place through my office with a committee of experts provincially to review every individual request for a medical or religious exemption.”

In some cases, exemptions may lead to workers getting reassigned, moved to separate areas, or tested on a regular basis, said Henry. But for those who choose not to be immunized, Henry said their choice would mean “leave without pay.”

The province is still gathering data on exactly how many health-care workers the new order will affect. But according to Health Minister Adrian Dix, it will certainly rise above 100,000 people across B.C. once long-term care and assisted living workers are counted.

Henry’s office had previously made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory at all long-term and residential care settings. As of today, Sept. 13, all employees in such facilities are required to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. By Oct. 12, those workers must be fully vaccinated.

The vaccination rate for health-care workers is higher than B.C.’s average. But health-care settings are one of the riskiest points for transmitting the virus, and the provincial health officer said even small pockets of unvaccinated workers pose a risk, especially as the Delta variant takes hold.

She said her office has been negotiating a vaccine mandate with worker unions for some time, and there was concern health-care workers would leave long-term care — where a vaccine mandate was announced earlier — and move to acute care. 

“That’s not an option for people who are trying to avoid being immunized,” said Henry.

A spokesperson for the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU), which represents 43,000 health-care workers across the province, said the vaccine mandate comes as no surprise. 

“I think our members have mixed views on it,” said HEU spokesperson Mike Old, noting over 90 per cent of the union’s members have already been vaccinated. 

“We remain committed to a voluntary vaccine program. But obviously, the provincial health officer has determined the risk is high and this is necessary.” 

BC General Employees' Union (BCGEU) president Stephanie Smith told Glacier Media there remains a lot of unanswered questions.

Smith said the BCGEU, which represents roughly 23,000 health-care workers in everything from home support services and long-term care to mental health and addiction, has yet to get a full list of what workers will be covered by the order.

“What accommodations will be made [for those] who have legitimate exemption requests?” said Smith. “Like always with these health orders, the devil is always in the details.”

“We will file grievances where they are appropriate.”

The announcement comes the same day a new “proof of vaccination” passport took effect in B.C. The province said the scheme is aimed at allowing businesses to remain open even as health-care workers tackle a rising number of COVID-19 infections. Over the weekend, another 1,984 new cases were recorded across the province and another nine more people died due to the virus.

More than 2.1 million British Columbians have downloaded the BC Vaccine Card since it was made available six days ago.

Across the province, 85.8 per cent of the province’s residents eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine have received at least one dose, said Minister Dix Monday afternoon. Of those, he said 78.4 per cent have been fully vaccinated. 

That puts the province’s vaccination rate slightly above that of the Prairie provinces and Ontario, but below that of Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.