Thirty-six per cent of staff at Copernicus Lodge remained unvaccinated as of Monday, as the long-term care home's mandatory vaccination policy came into effect.
The facility — located at 66 Roncesvalles Ave. in the city's west end — announced its mandatory vaccination policy on Sept. 10.
Marla Antia, a spokesperson for the home, said 84 out of a total 343 staff and agency workers are unvaccinated. All 84 are now on unpaid, indefinite leave, Antia said. The province also announced last week that all staff at Ontario long-term care homes must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-November.
"We had a number of people come in over the weekend, even today and on Friday to get vaccinated. So, I don't know if they left it till the last minute or if the government's announcement also maybe prompted people to take that extra step," Antia told CBC news on Monday.
"But I mean, it's not as high as we would like. We didn't want to see anyone leave, but we have been in contingency planning for a long time."
'It's tough,' spokesperson says
Anita said officials at the home have heard a variety of reasons as to why staff won't take the vaccine, ranging from misinformation to distrust and a perceived lack of testing.
"Yeah, it's tough. You don't want to see anyone leave and it's tough for our residents as well, tough for staff and tough for our managers who are caught in between."
LISTEN | Staff discuss Copernicus Lodge's new vaccine mandate:
Tracey Comeau, Copernicus Lodge's chief executive officer, told CBC News on Tuesday that while it was "disappointing" 84 people chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine, it was "not surprising."
She said people are very strong in their convictions for a variety of reasons. But Comeau remains hopeful that "some will change their minds."
Meanwhile, Comeau said it won't be easy filling the positions left vacant by the unvaccinated employees, adding that they include people who have cared for residents for years
"It's an employees' market ... [it's] very difficult to find caring people who love to work with seniors, that understand dementia, hard to draw people into the field," she said.
"And for us, trying to attract Polish-speaking staff is harder, because our residents are Polish-speaking, communication is important."
Comeau said some of the unvaccinated employees stood outside the home on Tuesday "waving Canadian flags."
"They were peaceful. I think some of them were shocked that it happened [and] hoped that somehow it would change. [They are] so committed to the organization, truly committed to the organization."
The departure of so many workers makes it difficult for those remaining, said Maricel San Pedro, a registered nurse.
"I've been asked to take another shift tomorrow, so I'll be working doubles," San Pedro told CBC News.
"I think they aren't prepared ... because a lot of staff didn't get a vaccine, so this is their last day … they really expect the staff to get a vaccine … I really don't want to work doubles but I understand."
Simran Dhaliwal, a registered practical nurse, said she got her second shot last January — as soon as she could. But she said there was no point trying to persuade her colleagues who chose not to.
"I don't know where they accumulated these beliefs … You cannot change their mindsets. Even if you try, they'll try to change yours," Dhaliwal told CBC News.
Twenty-two residents at Copernicus Lodge died during a COVID-19 outbreak at the home last year.
New policy for long-term care workers
According to a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) in March, Canada has the worst record for COVID-19 deaths in long-term care homes compared with other wealthy countries.
Between March 2020 and February 2021, more than 80,000 residents and staff members of long-term care homes in Canada were infected with the coronavirus. Outbreaks occurred in 2,500 care homes, resulting in the deaths of 14,000 residents, according to the report.
The Ontario government announced Friday that staff at long-term care homes must be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said the mandatory vaccination policy, set to come into place on Nov. 15, is needed to deal with the threat posed by the delta variant.
Currently, workers in the sector are required to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, as well as attending an educational course on the benefits of immunization. The initial announcement of that policy drew criticism from some physicians and health experts, who said those caring for those most vulnerable to the illness should be fully vaccinated.