Quebec Premier François Legault says a worrisome trend in the number of new COVID-19 cases is pushing the province to make getting the vaccine mandatory for all health-care workers.
Ninety-one per cent Quebec's health-care workers have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 84 per cent have received two. But Legault said the stragglers pose "a real risk" to vulnerable patients.
"We can't afford to keep some staff in contact with patients if they are not vaccinated," said Legault at a news conference Tuesday. "I understand that this isn't an easy decision to make."
The government is calling on all Quebecers to get their shots in an August "vaccination blitz" ahead of the back-to-school season, with Legault noting most of the new hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated.
"The fourth wave is here, it is strong, the delta variant is very contagious and there is a true risk," he said.
Consequences to be debated
The vaccination mandate applies to "any [health-care worker] in direct contact with vulnerable people for 15 minutes or more," said Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's director of public health, at the news conference.
This includes people who disinfect hospital rooms, nurses, cardio-respiratory staff, doctors and more.
Legault said that the government expects these workers to get their first shot by Sept. 1 and a second dose by Oct. 1. When asked about the potential consequences for workers who refuse to be vaccinated, he said his government is proposing suspension without pay.
He called it a tricky situation, because it involves workers' rights.
Richard Gold, a professor in the faculty of law and medicine at McGill University, says Quebec is within its rights to require vaccination among health-care workers, with a couple specific exceptions.
"People who have a medical disability or religious belief that prevents them from getting vaccinated … those individuals need to have an out," said Gold.
"If you're just someone who doesn't feel like it, no, there's no such thing as discrimination on the basis of our life decisions," he said, adding people have to "live with the consequences" of their decisions.
A debate will be held in the legislature next week regarding the vaccine mandate for health workers, and also on the possibility of requiring vaccination for other public-sector employees, including teachers.
'The devil is in the details'
The head of Quebec's largest labour organization representing health and social service workers said he supports the new mandate, but it must come with accommodations.
"The devil is in the details," said Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux president Jeff Begley. "Because everyone will recognize that there are exemptions – for example, people who are medically incapable to receive the vaccine."
He said he would also like to ensure unions are consulted as he fears health workers might start leaving their jobs, which would further exacerbate the serious labour shortage plaguing the health-care system.
WATCH | Quebec union leader weighs in on mandatory vaccines:
The vice-president of workplace health and safety at the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ) shares this sentiment, saying the FIQ wants people to be vaccinated but not to a point where they're obligated to be.
"I'm just scared [the labour shortage is] going to be worse if [vaccines are] mandatory," said Elizabeth Rich of Quebec's largest nursing union. "People will either decide to leave or just go on sick leave." She said workers are already subjected to three screening tests a week.
Meanwhile, the Quebec College of Physicians welcomed the compulsory vaccinations, saying "the protection of patients, staff and the network's reception capacity is at stake."
Naveed Hussain, a nurse at the McGill University Health Centre, said he applauds the Legault government for its decision.
"It's something that should've been done earlier and it's a great plan," he said. "It is our duty to protect patients and to ensure their safety and to make sure that they get better." Hussain said vaccinations are the only way to ensure this.
"What other options do we really have right now?"