MONTREAL — Forcing health-care workers to get vaccinated could lead to cancelled surgeries and other service disruptions, but the health order is necessary to protect workers and patients, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said Thursday.
Some workers may choose to quit their jobs instead of being vaccinated, while others may be suspended for refusing, Dubé acknowledged during questioning at a committee hearing in Quebec's legislature. The ones who stay, however, will be protected from the novel coronavirus and likely won't need to take extended sick leaves, he added.
"In an environment where resources are extremely stretched, we cannot allow more staff to be withdrawn for reasons that could have been avoided through proper vaccination," Dubé told the committee. "Our objective with this measure is to protect our most vulnerable, but also to maintain our hospital capacity and maintain our level of care, notably by reducing absenteeism."
Quebec has announced it will require health-care workers who are in regular contact with patients to get vaccinated or risk being reassigned or suspended without pay. Employees in both the public and private health system will have until Oct. 15 to get both doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
The government held the first of two days of committee hearings on the health order Thursday in Quebec City. Dubé, public health officials and doctors groups argued in favour of the mandate, while unions representing health-care workers said the order goes too far and could lead to legal action.
At the peak of the pandemic, 12,000 health-care workers were absent due to medical reasons, Dubé told the committee, adding that around 2,000 workers are currently on medical or preventive leave. About 30,000 workers in the public health-care system are not vaccinated, Dubé said. The number in the private health system is likely even higher, he added.
Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, told the committee that he considers the mandate a "temporary measure." He declined, however, to say when he thought it would end.
The president of one of Quebec's largest union federations said that 18 months into the pandemic and with no end in sight, suspending an employee without pay is effectively the same as firing them.
Caroline Senneville, president of Confédération des syndicats nationaux, which represents more than 100,000 workers in health and social services, said she expects at least one unvaccinated worker to file a grievance if they're suspended. The union, she said, has no choice but to defend grievances filed by its members.
Senneville said she's also worried about the impact of unvaccinated workers leaving or being suspended. "On the ground, it's going to be hell, because it's going to mean fewer people, whether we want it or not," she said.
Nancy Bédard, president of Quebec's largest nurses union, said she's concerned the decision had already been made before Thursday's hearings. She said she doesn't understand why workers are being subjected to a vaccine mandate at a time when other restrictions are being relaxed in health-care settings because of the high rate of vaccination among health staff.
Quebec's public health institute says more than 91 per cent of health-care workers at public facilities and at private facilities that have contracts with the government have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. More than 86 per cent are considered adequately vaccinated.
Dr. Vincent Oliva, president of Quebec's association of medical specialists, said his organization supports the mandate without reservation and doctors who aren't vaccinated shouldn't be in direct contact with patients. He said 97 per cent of doctors have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 96 per cent have received two.
"However, we believe that we need to go a little further and that all staff in health-care settings should be vaccinated, no matter their level of contact with patients," he said, warning that unvaccinated workers could infect colleagues in hallways or cafeterias, who will then spread the virus to patients.
The hearings are scheduled to resume Friday and will discuss whether the vaccine mandate should be extended to other workers such as teachers and early childhood educators.
Meanwhile, Quebec reported 603 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and one more death attributed to the novel coronavirus. The Health Department said the number of hospitalizations linked to the pandemic rose by nine, to 119, and 36 people were in intensive care, a rise of three.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press