There are calls for Alberta to bring in a proof-of-vaccination requirement for hospital visitors as the pandemic's fourth wave continues to surge.
Visitors are currently screened for COVID-19 symptoms and are required to wear a face mask while in acute care facilities, but there is no rule that they must be immunized.
"It seems to me that if you need a vaccine passport to get into a bar or restaurant that it would be wise to have some better controls and better safety measures for people who are visiting people in hospital," said Rob Ursel.
His 81-year-old, immunocompromised mother — who is triple vaccinated — broke her hip and wrist in a fall last week.
While recovering from surgery at the Pincher Creek hospital, she ended up in a double room.
According to Ursel, a woman visiting the patient in the neighbouring bed told her she was unvaccinated as she walked by to use the shared bathroom.
"An 81-year-old who's trying to recovere from broken bones who is immunocompromised should not be mingling with unvaccinated people at this point," he said.
Ursel doesn't blame staff at the hospital, who he said are doing their best to protect the patients. He wants the rules changed. He wrote to the health minister calling this a "grave risk."
'It's a no-brainer'
Dr. Joe Vipond, a Calgary emergency room physician with the group Protect our Province Alberta, agrees.
"When a patient goes into the hospital, they have an expectation that they're going to be safe from disease," he said.
"We should have limitations on visitors who are unvaccinated from engaging with susceptible patients. It's a no-brainer."
However, Vipond cautioned it would have to be clear that patients would continue to receive all care, regardless of their vaccination status.
Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital, said a provincial working group — which has developed policies around hospital visitation during the pandemic — is reviewing a proposal on proof of vaccination for hospital visitors.
According to Smith, "a small minority" of hospital-acquired COVID-19 cases are linked to visitors at her facility.
She said it's important to keep families at the centre of patient care while also keeping the hospital safe. And she worries about keeping families apart.
"If you had a loved one in the hospital and you weren't allowed to visit and that person was alone and sick, I think we have to maintain our humanity and realize that that person in that hospital bed needs that visitor, too."
In a statement emailed to CBC News, AHS said no decisions have been made about requiring visitors or so-called "designated support persons" to be immunized and that many factors are under consideration.
"This includes balancing potential increased safety of our patients and staff, with the mental health of patients/residents who may be affected by this requirement," said AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson.
"Other issues being reviewed include those who may not seek needed medical care for fear of isolation if they have family and loved ones that are unvaccinated, and the health and safety of our staff when individuals are denied entry due to their vaccination status."
Immunization status is not a barrier to care at AHS sites, he added.
AHS has a number of precautions in place in its hospitals, including symptom screening upon arrival and a requirement that visitors wear masks at all times and practise hand hygiene. In addition, Smith said, visitors are not allowed to eat or drink while in patient rooms.
There are also strict limits on how many people can visit. On in-patient wards, two "designated support persons" can be identified but only one can visit at a time. Only one designated support person is allowed on maternity units.
Meanwhile, a B.C.-based infectious disease expert believes there is merit to requiring that hospital visitors are immunized.
"I know that visitors in hospitals … have contributed to outbreaks. It's not uncommon because we know which environments enable this virus to spread and that's going to be in indoor environments with ventilation that might not be optimal.… Hospitals are not immune to that," said Dr. Victor Leung, an infectious disease physician and medical microbiologist in Vancouver.
Leung said hospitals in hard-hit regions like Alberta should consider introducing vaccination requirements.
"It wouldn't be difficult to do, given the province already has a mechanism for vaccine verification … so this would just be translating it to an essential service facility," he said.
"In a shared room that just has curtains [and] a shared washroom, we know that there's going to be many opportunities for this virus to transmit through the airborne route."
Leung said that in extenuating circumstances — such as the rare situation where a visitor has a medical exemption — there are options for hospitals, including rapid antigen testing and strong respiratory personal protective equipment.
As of Tuesday, there were 27 hospitals with COVID-19 outbreaks in Alberta.