After Ontario and Quebec backed away from making COVID-19 vaccination for health care workers mandatory, B.C. health officials are sticking with an order that has put more than 3,000 people on unpaid leave of absence and aggravated staffing shortages.
Health Minister Adrian Dix says working with unvaccinated staff one-on-one continues, and most health occupations have reached 97 to 98 per cent vaccination. Since the public health order was announced Oct. 12, the number of unvaccinated health care workers has dropped from more than 5,000 to just over 3,000.
The Interior Health region has the most holdouts, with 959 staff still unvaccinated, Dix said at a pandemic briefing in Victoria Nov. 4. There remained 306 in Northern Health, 573 in Fraser Health and 485 in Island Health, on unpaid leave since Oct. 26.
Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry have been unmoved by decisions in other provinces to allow frequent testing instead of vaccination, insisting that the health data are clear that vaccination prevents serious illness, including for those who have been infected and recovered. Asked about the issue on Nov. 1, Henry said health care workers who insist on their personal preference to remain unvaccinated should consider if they are “in the wrong profession.”
She noted that those who face severe COVID-19 illness daily, including emergency room doctors and nurses as well as respiratory technicians and perfusionists who place breathing apparatus into patients who can’t breathe on their own, are 100 per cent vaccinated. At that stage, a large proportion of patients who go into intensive care and are intubated do not survive.
Dix called the mandatory vaccine order for all but a few people with legitimate medical exemptions, “necessary and important” and emphasized it is not changing.
“We are, of course, going to continue to proceed with this requirement throughout our health care system in the interests of everybody, but in particular, for those working in the system and for those who need health care at this difficult and challenging time,” Dix said.
The pressure of staff shortages and hospitalized COVID-19 patients has forced hospitals to reduce scheduled surgeries, as doctors and other staff are moved to other positions. From Sept. 5 to Oct. 30, there were 2,389 surgical postponements, Dix said, and more have not been booked as people wait longer for hip and knee replacements and other procedures.