Province investigates making COVID vaccine mandatory for long-term care home workers

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Premier Blaine Higgs said Social Development and Public Health have been calling long-term care homes directly about their levels of vaccination and the risk that their workers and residents could be in.  (Joe McDonald/CBC - image credit)
Premier Blaine Higgs said Social Development and Public Health have been calling long-term care homes directly about their levels of vaccination and the risk that their workers and residents could be in. (Joe McDonald/CBC - image credit)

New Brunswick is seeking a legal opinion on whether it can make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for long-term care home employees and other health-care workers, says Premier Blaine Higgs.

The province is also considering identifying long-term care homes where an insufficient number of workers have received the vaccine, so families can decide if it's safe to put their loved ones there, he said.

Roughly 66 per cent of long-term care staff across the province have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to figures released by the government on Monday.

That's up from about 59 per cent a few weeks ago, but not as high as Higgs was hoping.

He's "concerned," he said, and searching for solutions. Vaccination as a condition of employment is one idea being explored.

"That's a question that has been asked … and I don't have an opinion yet."

The province does not have a mandatory vaccination policy, "and that's not, you know, certainly on the table at this point," said Higgs.

He noted, however, that there are cases where people have to meet certain work requirements. He cited the example of long-term care home workers donning COVID-19 protective equipment throughout the pandemic.

"So is it a stretch to say, well, in this vulnerable population, you know, [COVID vaccination] may be a condition of employment" when employers have an obligation to ensure residents are safe?

"So the nuance in all this is, again, balancing out what's safe and right for the residents and then people who want to come to work but have a real particular issue with vaccines, because, again, we've got a situation where, you know, the availability of workers is short."

'Heavy-handed approach'

Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, which represents workers in 51 of the province's 70 nursing homes, was disappointed to learn of the premier's "harsh comments."

"I don't think taking a heavy-handed approach and threatening in that way is the avenue that our government should go," she said.

Teare said she can't speak for all of the 566 facilities, many of which are non-unionized, but believes most workers are willing to get immunized. Some have simply faced barriers to access, she said.

For example, until recently, they had to book appointments through their regional health authority, rather than their local pharmacy, and had to travel as much as an hour and a half to a clinic, said Teare.

That's because pharmacies are restricted to eligible age groups, not priority groups determined by the province. But as of this week, eligibility has opened up to all New Brunswickers aged 18 and older.

The New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions encourages members to 'weigh the pros and cons' of COVID vaccines and 'the benefit not only to themselves, but to the residents that they care for,' said president Sharon Teare.
The New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions encourages members to 'weigh the pros and cons' of COVID vaccines and 'the benefit not only to themselves, but to the residents that they care for,' said president Sharon Teare. (Radio-Canada)

Teare expects that will help improve vaccination rates among workers and contends the government should allow more time to "see some successes through those avenues" instead of "shaming and blaming."

Long-term care staff were among the first priority groups when the province's vaccination roll out began in December.

Asked about families who have concerns about the risks to their loved ones and how much longer they should be expected to wait, Teare said she understands.

"I as an individual would have those same concerns. But we also have to recognize the government must also do their part as well."

Teare said government should focus on education and providing "factual information" about COVID vaccines.

In addition, while nursing home workers get paid leave to get the vaccine, not all long-term care home workers do.

"I think we have to collectively work together to make sure that there's a process in place to rolling out the vaccines and the accessibility is there. And who knows better how to get there than those who work on the front lines?"

Teare, who works as a resident attendant, said she has received a dose, even though she has an autoimmune disorder and previously avoided the flu vaccine.

"My personal opinion on all of this is that we have to do what's in the best interests of our seniors that we care for. And being vaccinated is one of those avenues if you do not have any … compromised or underlying issues that would prevent you from doing so."

Jan Seely, president of the New Brunswick Special Care Homes Association, could not immediately be reached for comment.

We'll continue to ramp up the pressure. - Blaine Higgs, premier

Higgs said he wants to be "proactive" and "constructive" in finding ways to encourage the long-term care workers to be vaccinated.

"I just don't understand why this is difficult, really."

The province will "do what's necessary" to ensure the workers get vaccinated, he said, including travelling to vaccinate.

"So we'll continue to ramp up the pressure here."

New Brunswick has had 43 COVID-related deaths since the pandemic began, the most recent being a person over the age of 90 in the Bathurst region, Zone 6, announced on Wednesday.

The province releases few details about the cases, citing confidentiality, but Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said the person was not a resident of a long-term care facility. He did not immediately respond to questions about whether the person had received any COVID vaccines.

At least six residents of Pavillon Beau-Lieu, a special care home in Grand Falls, where there's a COVID outbreak, have died.

Of the five other residents who died earlier this month, four had received at least one dose of vaccine, and one of them had both doses, Macfarlane had previously confirmed. No details about the vaccine history of the sixth person, whose death was announced Tuesday, have been released.

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