COVID-19 immunization rates are rising among health-care workers in the province as the deadline for Alberta Health Services' vaccine mandate looms.
And while the vast majority of the AHS workforce is in compliance as the Nov. 30 deadline nears, it appears there still thousands who are not.
According to AHS, almost 96 per cent of full-time and part-time employees, more than 99 per cent of physicians and 82 per cent of casual employees have now submitted proof of their COVID-19 immunization.
The mandatory vaccination policy applies to all AHS and Covenant Health staff as well as workers at AHS subsidiaries, including Carewest, Capital Care and Alberta Precision Laboratories. Those who don't comply will be put on unpaid leave.
AHS and its subsidiaries have a combined workforce of 121,000 people, according to the health authority's website. Nine thousand physicians are also part of the AHS medical staff.
The immunization deadline was extended by a month, to the end of November, to give staff more time to comply and to provide facilities — particularly continuing care homes with low uptake in rural areas —more time to prepare for the loss of non-compliant staff.
At that time, 94 per cent of full-time and part-time employees, 94 per cent of AHS physicians and 76 per cent of casual workers were fully vaccinated.
Health-care workers, including doctors, nurses, support staff, students and volunteers, were required to submit paperwork proving their vaccination status by Nov. 15, and two weeks must have passed by the end of the month since their second shot.
Danielle Larivee, first vice-president with the United Nurses of Alberta, said her union was updated by AHS on Thursday and told that 97 per cent of its affected members are fully immunized.
"There has been a substantial movement toward more people being immunized, thanks to the delay," she said.
While the situation has improved, she said, there are still some hospitals and continuing care homes that could be hard hit.
"What we're being told is in Edmonton and Calgary they expect to be able to mitigate it quite easily. So it is primarily northern Alberta and central Alberta where there's some of those challenges … and there were already staffing challenges in many of those communities," she said.
According to Larivee, some registered nurses, already exhausted by the pandemic, are worried about the impact of losing staff who refuse to get vaccinated and are put on unpaid leave as a result.
"They want to know the people they're taking care of are going to continue to get services. But also … what it's going to mean to them in terms overtime, in terms of their workload."
In a statement emailed to CBC News, AHS said it continues to work closely with those who choose not to get immunized to address their concerns, answer their questions, and educate them about the importance of vaccine safety and effectiveness.
And it now has plans in place to mitigate the impacts of any potential loss of staff
"AHS has contingency plans in place to ensure patient care is not impacted by the mandatory immunization policy. This may involve redeploying staff to areas where we have higher rates of non-compliance," spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in the email.
AHS has received 1,614 exemption requests so far, and 92 employees — roughly half of whom are front-line clinical staff — indicate they have chosen to resign from AHS prior to Dec. 1. Twenty-four of those are related to retirement.
AHS said it doesn't expect the low vaccine uptake among casual workers (82 per cent) to cause major staffing challenges since nearly one-third have not worked a shift in the past year.
AUPE expects 'significant number' of grievances
Roughly 55,000 members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) are affected by the AHS mandate.
"We have a lot of members that have not got the vaccine, are not getting the vaccine. They are just not going to do it. And it's not up to us as a union to question the choices they make," said AUPE vice-president Bonnie Gostola.
According to Gostola, between eight and 10 per cent of the AUPE's general support staff, health-care aides and licensed practical nurses have not provided proof of vaccination, and many of them are now being called into meetings with AHS management.
She said the union has strongly encouraged members to get vaccinated, but it expects to file a "significant number" of grievances.
"It is our place to defend their rights under their collective agreements, under human rights complaints, under occupational health and safety and under labour legislation. And that's what the union is prepared to do," she said.
Lorian Hardcastle, assistant professor in the faculty of law and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said legal challenges are likely.
Several Alberta doctors have already filed a lawsuit against AHS. But Hardcastle believes those fighting the vaccine mandate will have an uphill battle.
"Employers are able to put safety protocols, policies … in place to ensure the safety of a workplace. So I think the argument that AHS and other employers are going to bring is that these mandates are essential to protect their workforce, to protect their patients. And I think that's likely to be a pretty persuasive argument," she said.
"I think the courts are going to be reluctant to strike down vaccine mandates for either labour law reasons, employment reasons, human rights reasons or charter reasons, just because of the fact that so many workplaces have them in place and are relying on those to protect their workforce and their customers," Hardcastle said.
"So I think the courts are going to be reluctant to strike one of those mandates down knowing the potential snowballing effect it might have on other workplaces."