Three days before Quebec's government-imposed vaccination deadline for health-care workers, Health Minister Christian Dubé said his contingency plan to deal with the suspension of thousands of them will be announced "in the coming days."
Dubé said Tuesday he empathizes with people who have questions about COVID-19 vaccines but he expects more of an effort from those in the health-care system.
"Particularly for people working in health, nurses on the operating block, in urgent care, who have seen people get sick for 18 months," he said. "I have a really hard time understanding that those people won't get vaccinated."
"We respect their choice," he said, "but their choice has consequences."
As of Friday, health-care workers in Quebec who are not fully vaccinated will be suspended without pay. Dubé also said that being suspended would affect people's benefits, seniority, vacation pay and pension plans.
Asked if he's considered moving Friday's deadline in light of an ongoing labour shortage in the health sector, Dubé didn't hesitate.
"No change," he said.
Professional orders take same tack
Several professional orders representing health-care workers, including the province's orders of nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, licensed practical nurses and the college of physicians, have said they will suspend the licences of members who aren't adequately vaccinated against COVID-19 by Friday.
Dubé applauded the orders for taking a strong position and responding to his request for their support.
But Nancy Hogan, president of the Syndicat interprofessionnel du CHU de Québec, the union representing nurses at LavaI University Hospital, says she's worried about the workers who will stay behind and have to shoulder an extra burden.
"We are short of people and the vaccination mandate only adds to the number of people who will leave. It doesn't make sense," she said, noting health-care staff are already exhausted.
WATCH | Quebec health-care workers risk their jobs if they refuse to be vaccinated:
Some health experts, however, say even if it causes a strain on the system, the risk of keeping on unvaccinated staff is too great.
"Especially when you look at long-term care institutions where people who have direct patient contact are interacting with the most vulnerable members of our population, the people who would be at highest risk for a COVID outbreak," said Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal epidemiologist and cardiologist.
Paul Brunet, a Quebec patients' rights advocate, agrees. He says dealing with gaps in patient care isn't ideal but it's better than unvaccinated workers transmitting the virus.
And, Brunet said, the suspension of unvaccinated nurses is a "logical consequence."
In a tweet on Monday, Dubé said it will be impossible to bypass mandatory vaccinations in the health sector come Friday. On Tuesday, he repeated his plea for unvaccinated health-care workers to get their shots by Friday.
"It's never too late to get a first dose," he said.
Among the province's nurses, there are 4,338 who are not fully vaccinated, the Quebec Order of Nurses said Tuesday. Of those, 1,531 have had one dose and 2,807 have had no COVID-19 vaccine. There are another 5,716 members whose vaccination status is uncertain.
There are about 70,000 nurses in the Fédération interprofessionnel de la santé du Québec, the province's biggest nurses union.
According to Natalie Stake-Doucet, a registered nurse and president of the Quebec Nurses' Association (QNA), many nurses are reacting favourably to the mandates.
"It's a relief to know that all our colleagues we're working with will be vaccinated," she said.
"For a lot of us, it's not a looming doom, it's actually a very hopeful time."
Last week, Quebec recruited more than 1,000 nurses to work full time in the public sector after announcing emergency financial incentives to recruit health-care workers.
Stake-Doucet says the government needs to go further, especially ahead of the vaccination deadline.
"I think the government can do a lot more, like banning forced overtime," she said. "That would bring back a lot more people than we would lose with mandatory vaccines."
Dubé says the Health Ministry is moving step by step to address staffing issues caused by the labour shortage, the coming vaccine mandate and difficult working conditions.
By next week, for example, he said "unfavourable scheduling" policies that are being used to fill the gaps will be applied only to independent workers coming from temporary agencies.
"We're going to work on mandatory overtime, there's a whole chain of events that are going to help our people … find workers," Dubé said.
"It's not just bonuses. It's working conditions. It's the [working] environment that's important."