Quebec backtracks on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for health-care workers
By The Canadian Press
Health & Safety
By Morgan Lowrie
MONTREAL — The Quebec government was forced to backtrack Wednesday on its vaccine mandate for health-care workers, saying the loss of unvaccinated employees would have a devastating effect on the system.
Following through on a threat to suspend unvaccinated workers by Nov. 15 would have forced the health network to reduce services and compromised efforts to improve conditions for existing workers, Health Minister Christian Dube told reporters.
“To deprive ourselves of 8,000 people, it would have devastating consequences for our network,” he said in Quebec City. “We could face, for example, more than 500 reorganizations or reduction of services,” such as having to reduce hours or temporarily close some emergency rooms.
He said vaccination will no longer be mandatory for current health-care employees but will be required for new hires. Unvaccinated employees will have to be tested for COVID-19 at least three times a week, or face suspension without pay, he said. They will also be ineligible for COVID-19 bonuses or retention bonuses, Dube added.
The government originally set an Oct. 15 deadline for health-care workers to be vaccinated but extended it by a month in the hopes of convincing the remaining workers to get the shot.
The minister said 97 per cent of health-care workers are vaccinated against COVID-19, but there are still about 14,000 who have not received a single dose, including 8,000 who work “on the ground.” Of those, Dube said, about 5,000 have direct contact with patients, including about 1,200 nurses and 1,300 patient attendants.
While the vaccination rate among health-care workers has gone up from about 90 per cent to 97 since the government first announced its intention in August to impose a mandate, Dube was forced to admit that the numbers hadn’t moved significantly in the last few days.
Daniel Desharnais, an assistant deputy minister in charge of liaising with the local health networks, said the province’s health system is so short-staffed that a labour reduction of even one per cent would have “very damaging effects.” Applying the decree would have resulted in a reduction in labour hours of about four per cent overall and up to nine per cent in some services, he said.
He said a reduction in services in areas such as home care or long-term care could also have a “domino effect” on other services by forcing patients to stay longer in already crowded hospitals.
Dube and Premier Francois Legault had repeatedly insisted that the health worker vaccine mandate was necessary to protect vulnerable patients. On Wednesday, however, Dube refused to concede that the reversal was a failure because the mandate, he said, succeeded in raising vaccination rates.
The province’s public health director, Horacio Arruda, also noted that the COVID-19 situation in the province has changed since the mandate was announced in August, with more people now vaccinated.
Dube also warned the unvaccinated that the current situation may not last forever, adding that local health network managers would likely replace unvaccinated staff as soon as they have enough vaccinated workers from which to choose.