Health-care authorities across British Columbia will spend the next few days juggling to fill gaps left by unvaccinated workers dismissed without pay.
Hospital Employees' Union spokesperson Mike Old told Glacier Media that Tuesday, the day the province's vaccine mandate for health-care workers came into effect, was incredibly tough.
"It’s a really, really difficult day for many health-care workers and we have to treat those workers with compassion and understanding,” said Old, whose union represents more than 50,000 members across B.C.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said 4,090 workers in the health-care system did not get one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before the Oct. 26 deadline. These employees were dismissed from their jobs as of Tuesday and will be placed on unpaid leave. If they don't get their first jab by Nov. 15, they will be terminated.
"This is a necessary step but a solemn day because it has implications for those people and their families and for patients and their families. But it is what all of us need to do together to support one another in the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dix.
To date, there are 126,343 workers in the health-care system and 119,627 of them are fully vaccinated.
The highest number of unvaccinated health-care workers are in B.C.’s Interior:
- Interior: 1,369 (7%)
- Northern: 376 (5%)
- Vancouver Island: 678 (3%)
- Fraser: 644 (2%)
- Providence: 122 (2%)
- Vancouver Coastal: 522 (2%)
- Provincial Health Services Authority: 496 (2%)
Nurses who worked at Kelowna General Hospital spoke to Castanet after they were dismissed.
“It makes you feel very sad that people think we are not good nurses because of this, which is not true. We’ve shown up for our patients since day one, since the very beginning. We’ve followed all rules and protocols, other than having a medication that we don’t necessarily agree with for various reasons,” said a woman who asked to be identified by just her first name, Hailey.
Another nurse claimed she put in a religious exemption and was denied.
"I feel like you should accept what other people’s choices are. I just want to tell my patients that I will always be there for them and if and when I can come back, I will be here for them,” she said.
Dix added that health authorities will be taking steps across the province to deal with the challenges presented by the workers being dismissed from their job sites.
"Of course, we are concerned about the impact it will have on the frontline of the health-care system, especially in those regions,” said Old.
Care facilities and hospitals are now trying to fill the gaps.
"It’s going to be a hard few days as we sort out how to cover off those staffing shortages and continue to deliver the care that, especially residents in long-term care deserve,” added Old.
The Health Sciences Association (HSA), which represents more than 20,000 health-care and social-services professionals in B.C, said it supports the vaccine mandate.
“HSA members have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic and are dedicated to keeping all British Columbians healthy and safe,” HSA president Kane Tse said in a written statement.
"We support a vaccine mandate at this difficult time; it’s a proven and essential tool for protecting each other, our patients and the community; however, it does present a number of challenges and complications.”
HSA said the union will be working to "protect the interests of members affected" and insists that employers "respect their collective agreement rights.”
Long-term care and assisting living workers had a similar mandate and needed to be vaccinated (at least one dose) by Oct. 12. These employees were placed on a two-week unpaid leave and were given a deadline to have at least one dose by Oct. 26 or be terminated.
"We think there is somewhere less than 2,000 [long-term care] workers in that sector that may have not been vaccinated.”
Old hopes unvaccinated employees spend the coming days researching and reconsidering their decision.
“We're hoping in the two and a half weeks ahead of them, they have the opportunity to seek out credible sources of information about the vaccine and get their questions answered and hopefully get that first dose because we really need those skilled and experienced workers to remain in our health-care system.”