As unvaccinated COVID-19 patients strain British Columbia’s health system, the government said Monday it will require all health-care workers to be fully vaccinated against the virus by Oct. 26.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the mandate will help keep workers well enough to care for patients and reduce their risk of putting patients at risk.
“This is an important part of our responsibility as health workers,” said Henry. “It was always our intention to support all health-care workers to be immunized.”
On Monday, B.C. reported 1,984 new cases of COVID-19 over three days, with 278 individuals in hospital and 139 of those in critical care. Nine more people died of the virus since Friday.
There are currently 24 active outbreaks in health-care facilities like long-term care and hospitals.
Hospitalizations have not yet reached the levels of earlier in the pandemic, but independent modelling projections this month suggest B.C. could see record levels of hospitalization in October, even with rising vaccination rates.
Broader measures to reduce community transmission are key to preventing the health system from being overwhelmed, the report said.
Henry said she hopes the measures to reduce transmission until the vaccine requirement takes effect will be effective.
Businesses in Interior Health that follow the policy are exempt from the tightened restrictions the region has seen for the last seven weeks.
Henry said “we are now in a place where we need to take additional measures” to get people vaccinated in high-risk settings.
Monday’s vaccine order will apply to all workers in health-care settings in B.C., including home-care workers, medical residents and students, contractors and employees in food service and cleaning in health-care facilities.
There will be exemptions for the rare cases where someone cannot get vaccinated for medical or religious reasons, Henry said, with added precautions for the employees such as rapid testing or reassignment to a different setting.
“This is not going to adversely affect a large proportion of health-care workers,” she said.
The announcement comes the same day that B.C.’s vaccine card program, which appears to have significantly boosted vaccination rates, began to require a single shot to enter indoor settings like restaurants, sporting events and concerts.
Third shots will also begin for 15,000 immunocompromised individuals, including organ transplant recipients and those undergoing treatment for some forms of blood cancer.
“People who are immunocompromised don’t respond as well to any vaccine and have a reduced ability to fight infection,” said Henry. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended booster shots for this small group last week.
Currently 85.8 per cent of eligible British Columbians have at least one shot, and 78.4 per cent are fully vaccinated. Professional association data suggests upwards of 96 per cent of doctors and 88 per cent of nurses are vaccinated in B.C.
As of Monday, 121 of 139 people in B.C. intensive care units are unvaccinated. For the 38 people under 50 in ICU, all but one are unvaccinated. More than 80 per cent of hospitalizations are among the 14.2 per cent of the population who are unvaccinated.
“The number of people we’re dealing with [with] COVID-19 who are unvaccinated is a very high proportion and puts significant pressure on our health-care system,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix.
The move raises renewed concern for staffing shortages in B.C. emergency rooms in the wake of reports that a 70-year-old woman died after six hours without care in the waiting room of Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, which has been inundated with COVID-19 patients and is severely understaffed.
The BC Nurses’ Union, which fought mandatory flu vaccinations for nurses in 2019, said Monday’s order was deeply concerning. “We cannot support any order which will serve to remove even a single nurse or other health-care worker from the health-care system at a time of severe crisis,” the union said in a statement.
Henry and Dix acknowledged “there is a shortage of health-care workers across the country,” but said they expect to lose very few health-care workers and have strong support from professional associations.
“I want to remind everybody that this is a chance for us to continue to get through this storm together,” said Henry.
Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee