Almost 2,000 long-term care and assisted living staff could be placed on unpaid leave in the chronically understaffed sector next week when the province’s vaccine mandate takes effect.
When the mandate was announced in August, all workers were supposed to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 12.
The province eased the requirements today, saying staff either need to be fully vaccinated or to have had a single dose at least seven days before the deadline and take increased COVID-19 precautions.
But provincial data indicates about four per cent of the sector’s 46,000 workers across the province still don’t have a single dose seven days before the orders take effect. In Northern Health, that number is as high as 12 per cent of workers.
“This group of people has done extraordinary work in this pandemic… this is another step in that journey,” Health Minister Adrian Dix said today.
The deadline extension reflects a need to ensure staffing and care remain sufficient and to support staff to get vaccinated in a timely way, Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
All care providers have submitted staffing plans to the province to manage what could be a significant portion of the workforce absent or turning over in the coming weeks, Henry said.
Only medical exemptions will be allowed, and those people will be required to take enhanced precautions, Henry said. All applications are reviewed by her office individually and workers can continue to work while they are being assessed.
The changes also require visitors to long-term care and assisted living to be fully vaccinated starting Oct. 12 and those visiting in acute care by Oct. 26, with some exceptions for end-of-life and palliative care.
The province also announced today that COVID-19 vaccines will be required for all government employees — about 30,000 people.
The Delta variant has hit long-term care residents particularly hard recently, with most outbreaks started by unvaccinated staff and visitors, Henry said. The changes will protect residents and their families, particularly as hospitals are put under increasing stress.
Long-term care residents have also begun to receive booster third doses of vaccine six months after their second shots to maximize their immune response and protection from serious illness.
The province will require anyone hired to work in long-term care and assisted living between Oct. 12 and Nov. 30 to have at least a single dose seven days before starting work, and receive their second dose within 35 days.
Henry also announced an additional 100,000 immunocompromised people in B.C. would be prioritized for third doses starting next week, and the province is sending 300,000 Moderna vaccine doses back to Ottawa to be donated to countries who have low vaccine access. “These vaccines are not required at this time in B.C.,” she said.
“It’s incredibly important that people are vaccinated around the world and protected from this virus,” said Henry.
So far, 88.2 per cent of eligible British Columbians 12 and over have received at least one vaccine dose, and more than 80 per cent have both doses.
But pockets of the province with much lower vaccination rates continue to bear the brunt of the more severe Delta variant, including Fort St. John, which has among the lowest coverage with 72 per cent of eligible people fully vaccinated.
Northern Health has already flown 32 critical care patients to Vancouver Coastal, Fraser and Vancouver Island health authorities, including 26 COVID-19 patients who were all unvaccinated.
And last week, 241 surgeries across the province were cancelled to make room and release resources for COVID-19 patients, Dix said.
Both Dix and Henry implored British Columbians to keep Thanksgiving gatherings small this long weekend and ideally limit them to only fully vaccinated people.
“It is important, it is critical, it is essential to get vaccinated now,” Dix urged.
Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee