Pembroke – Renfrew County council almost unanimously approved a COVID-19 vaccination policy for staff and council requiring proof of vaccination or alternatively an education session and ongoing negative tests for those who are unvaccinated or do not want to disclose their status.
While most members of council last Wednesday spoke in favour of the policy, the sole voice of opposition was Laurentian Hills Mayor Jed Reinwald who pointed out there is 20 percent of the population which is hesitant to receive the vaccine. He questioned why the county was bringing in the policy to begin with.
“Something of this magnitude you wonder why it is not provincial or federal law,” he said.
In speaking to people who are both vaccinated and unvaccinated, he said there is opposition to the policy.
“Some of the folks that are vaccinated won’t fill out forms because it infringes on their human rights,” he said.
He also added there are people who have suffered adverse reactions from vaccination, especially their second shot. Many people have concerns about vaccines including previous negative reactions from other vaccines, he added.
Mayor Reinwald said he was concerned about losing staff over the vaccination policy and cautioned if there would be enough staff to plow roads in winter if the policy is introduced. He said other workplaces are finding challenges with enough workers because of vaccination policies.
“I don’t believe 20 percent of the workforce are all wrong with respect to vaccination,” he said.
“We are playing with people’s lives and their families if they are forced to go against their rights,” he added.
Other areas have found staff are not providing the information and the health unit in those areas are not enforcing this, he added.
Despite his early comments on the topic, it was soon clear Mayor Reinwald was in the minority, for not only was he the only one to speak out against the policy, many of the other county councillors who spoke wanted to make the policy more all-encompassing and include members of county council.
Reeve Glenn Doncaster of Deep River began this thread by saying he would only be in favour of the policy if it was amended to include all members of county council as well.
“I think this body needs to stand up and lead by example,” he said.
Many others agreed with him, including Mayor Kim Love of Madawaska Valley.
“It is a responsible approach to a very difficult situation we find ourselves in,” she said, adding council needs to be included in the policy.
Admaston/Bromley Mayor Michael Donohue, who spoke out in favour of the vaccine policy for staff, had an issue with adding a clause to include county councillors. He stressed it was not because he was opposed to county council being included, but because he felt it needed to be done properly and not as an amendment to the policy.
“In an attempt to show leadership, we are making policy on the fly,” he cautioned.
A parallel policy for council would make more sense, he maintained. He suggested tabling the issue until November so proper wording could be introduced to include county council.
Others disagreed with his stance, saying it was time to move forward with the policy.
“We have to do the same as staff,” Mayor Janice Tiedje of Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards said. “Let’s show the public we are leaders.”
When it came to a vote there was some support for delaying adding county council to the policy, but this was defeated in a recorded vote. Renfrew Reeve Peter Emon suggested the policy be sent back to staff for review since there were some parts which would not apply well to council.
Not Mandatory Vaccination
Speaking earlier in the session, Mayor Donohue pointed out it was not a mandatory vaccination policy.
“There is a second parallel path where on a weekly basis proof of a negative test be produced,” he said.
The federal government has brought in a vaccine mandate for employees, he added. He said having a policy in place is important.
“There is a distinction between private health and public health,” he said. “A pandemic is a public health catastrophe.”
Case rates differ dramatically between the vaccinated, partially vaccinated and unvaccinated, he added.
“The rights of the large may outweigh the rights of the individual,” he pointed out.
As well, the county policy is flexible, he said.
“There is not the possibility of termination unless the individual refuses a weekly test,” he said.
Reeve Emon said he recognizes the reluctance of some people to be vaccinated and the worries they have.
“I’ve been employed by our local hospital for a number of years and I had the flu shot every year. It was part of my employment,” he said.
“I have a responsibility to get a vaccination to protect myself, and also to protect others around me,” he said.
Mayor James Brose of North Algona Wilberforce questioned if the right to privacy trumps another worker’s right to a safe environment. He asked if workers could refuse to come to work if they feel their workplace is not a safe environment.
“Our policy provides for all our employees to make some decisions with regards to vaccination status,” noted County Treasurer and Acting Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Foss.
Under the policy, staff have until December 1 for disclosure, he said.
“They have an option for a medical exemption,” he said.
Those with vaccination hesitancy can take a vaccination hesitancy course as well, he said.
“They have the opportunity to provide weekly testing as an accommodation,” he added. “Our policy is permissive for them to make their choices.”
Anyone who is unwilling to provide proof of vaccination or negative test results will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence, he added.
Mayor Jennifer Murphy of Bonnechere Valley asked how much tests costs on a weekly basis.
“And who enforces this?” she questioned. “Where are the vaccination police in this organization?”
Mr. Foss said with the HR Department and the employee health coordinator there is a mechanism to provide proof of vaccination. Those doing weekly antigen testing will submit that information to their manager or supervisor. The tests are about $39 at local pharmacies, he added.
Mayor Tiedje said her husband, who is a doctor in Killaloe, has been doing the tests for $10 for those who need them. She said she was in favour of the policy.
“Everyone needs to take the initiative to protect people around us,” she said.
Petawawa Mayor Bob Sweet was also in favour of bringing in the policy.
“I cannot believe in this day and age that there is pushback,” he said. “I believe we need to show leadership. It is imperative we move forward with this.”
Cathy Regier, the reeve of Whitewater Region, said it is a very fair policy. Her municipality introduced a similar policy.
“With the antigen testing it gives everyone the same opportunity,” she said. “No one loses their jobs.”
Arnprior also passed a policy on vaccination in a split vote, County Councillor Dan Lynch said.
“People who do rapid testing will be identified and will wear a mask and face shield,” he cautioned.
Co-workers would be able to see quite clearly and some might be concerned while others are singled out, he said.
“I know they are not vaccinated and will possibly move my desk a little further,” he gave as an example.
In the end the policy passed with only Mayor Reinwald and Mayor Donohue voting against. Mayor Donohue stipulated he was not opposed to the policy but the inclusion of county council which he felt was not done with proper procedure or research on how the policy will apply.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader