Long-term care providers across the country are looking to follow B.C.'s lead in requiring mandatory immunization for staff this fall, with Canada's largest seniors care firms forming a united front on the issue.
With the COVID-19 delta variant on the rise, many care providers are going beyond what various provincial authorities have ordered and are taking additional measures such as refusing to hire new employees who can't show proof of vaccination.
B.C.'s new rules require long-term care operators to collect staff and residents' immunization status.
Starting Sept. 8, workers who have not been vaccinated must take a rapid test before each shift. For those unwilling to be vaccinated, B.C. is giving them until October 12 to do so. After that, they will not be allowed to work.
"This mandatory vaccination policy is extremely important," Terry Lake, CEO of the B.C. Care Providers Association, told CBC News. "To take backwards steps with this new delta variant is heartbreaking.
"So we must do everything possible to protect those elderly, vulnerable British Columbians."
The national coalition of private long-term care chains says they're going to put unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave starting Oct. 12 across Canada, the same day B.C.'s similar rule kicks in. In the interim, many say they are not going to hire new staff who have not been immunized.
"We are optimistic our staff will continue to act in the best interest of our communities and will work to achieve full vaccination across our homes," the coalition said Thursday in a statement. "As rates of infection once again increase in communities across the country, unvaccinated staff are more likely to bring the virus to work.
"The safety of our residents in long-term care and retirement homes, who trust us to provide the care and services they need, is paramount."
The coalition is made up of major national care home chains, which say they're going further than what officials have ordered across the country.
The national coalition includes some of Canada's largest seniors' living companies, including Extendicare, Chartwell Retirement Residences, Responsive Group, Revera, and Sienna Senior Living.
During the pandemic, privately-run B.C. seniors homes were over-represented among those with the highest infection rates. That pattern has been seen in Ontario as well. And people in care facilities in general made up roughly two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths in B.C.
As a fourth wave of the pandemic begins, the country's private care home operators are hoping to move aggressively ahead of autumn's expected respiratory illness season, and stave off more tragedies.
But while many in the industry are looking to B.C. for guidance, Lake said there's a loophole in B.C. that needs closing — the same strict rules for long-term homes don't apply to acute care for seniors.
"Whether it's on a company-wide basis, or more importantly, mandated by government, it's the right thing to do," Lake said. "But we need to extend that to acute care as well."
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged her measures will impact unvaccinated employees, but said they're needed to protect the lives of residents and staff.
She wrote in her orders that while she recognizes the rules will impact people who say they can't be vaccinated due to medical issues, the strict rules are in place for good reason.
"Rights and freedoms, are not ... absolute and are subject to reasonable limits … to prevent loss of life, serious illness and disruption of our health system and society," Henry wrote in her Aug. 20 order for seniors care operators.
One of the care provider coalition members, Chartwell Retirement Residences, said 92 per cent of its staff in long-term care facilities and 86 per cent of staff in retirement homes have received at least one vaccine dose.
"As we enter the fourth wave, we believe strongly that the risk of the virus to our residents and the need to ensure that we do everything we can to avoid future outbreaks ... requires us to do more," the company said in a statement.