Quebec health-care employees will no longer have to be fully vaccinated to work in the health system, the government announced Wednesday.
At a news conference, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé announced that the province was moving away from a strategy of mandatory vaccination toward one of compulsory testing for unvaccinated employees.
However, new employees will be required to get vaccinated and all unvaccinated health-care workers will be ineligible for retention bonuses.
Dubé said out of the 14,000 unvaccinated health-care workers, 5,000 are likely to be in direct contact with patients. He said 97 per cent of active health-care employees have received at least one dose.
"It's exceptional, but it still isn't perfect," Dubé said.
"For many Quebecers, including myself, it's still baffling that health-care workers don't want to get vaccinated."
Quebec Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda said public health arrived at the decision after weighing the health-care network's ability to withstand losing unvaccinated employees against enforcing regular testing for those who aren't adequately protected.
"We now think that the balance between trying to fight, again, the ones who don't want to be vaccinated and putting them at home will create a loss of power for health care. and we can make sure that the people are going to be protected if we do testing."
Some workers suspended for refusing tests
Regional health networks have started withholding pay from unvaccinated employees who have refused to be tested for COVID-19. They have direct contact with patients.
A ministerial decree last month requires all employees of the health and social services network who have not received both COVID-19 vaccine doses and who are in direct contact with patients to provide a negative test result to their employer three times per week.
"We will be uncompromising for those who do not want to be tested," Dubé said.
Six unvaccinated employees of the Integrated University Health and Social Services Center (CIUSSS) of the Capitale-Nationale and five of the CISSS Chaudière-Appalaches have refused to comply.
Mélanie Otis, media relations co-ordinator of the CIUSSS Capitale-Nationale, says suspended employees are sent several reminders of the mandatory tests before being taken off the schedule.
Premier expresses frustration
In Glasgow for the COP 26 conference, Quebec Premier François Legault was clearly frustrated by the situation.
"To be honest, I am upset," he told reporters, "because I have a hard time understanding how someone who studied health sciences refuses to get themselves vaccinated even though experts around the world are unanimous, saying it's the right thing to do."
But Legault said the province could not risk breaks in service in hospitals and other health institutions.
"We had to weigh the inconveniences," he said, acknowledging the new policy puts some patients at risk of exposure.
"But the greater risk was to be missing nurses and not be able to treat Quebecers."
Legault said the effects of 20 months of a pandemic, combined with the high number of part-time health-care workers, has left the Quebec health network "very, very fragile and we cannot afford to lose three per cent of our workers."
Jeff Begley, the president of the federation of health and social services unions (FSSS-CSN), said the Quebec government made the right decision to make sure patient services would not suffer.
"It was the only decision that was possible," Begley said. "People who have decided not to be vaccinated, most of them, their mind is pretty much made up."
He also said the number of outbreaks in public health-care facilities has gone down in recent months, which suggest to him that staff — whether vaccinated or not — are doing a good job of limiting the spread of the virus at work.