Quebec suspending unvaccinated health-care workers who refuse COVID-19 testing

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MONTREAL — Quebec's health-care facilities have started suspending unvaccinated workers who refuse to comply with a health order that they be tested for COVID-19 at least three times per week, the government confirmed Friday.

A Health Department spokesperson said unvaccinated health-care employees had been suspended or that suspension procedures were underway in "the majority of establishments in Quebec."

Health Minister Christian Dubé announced earlier this week that the government was backing down on its threat to impose a vaccine mandate for health workers, but he said unvaccinated employees would have to submit to regular testing or face suspension without pay.

About 8,000 active workers had not been vaccinated, including about 5,000 who worked directly with patients, he said.

The Health Department on Friday would not confirm how many employees in total had been suspended, but data provided to The Canadian Press by some of the regional health boards suggested it was at least several dozen.

The health network representing the Quebec City area said it had suspended six workers who refused to be tested even after "several communications" reminding them to do so.

"Since reassignment was not possible for these employees, they were removed from the schedule and are receiving no compensation for an indefinite period, and this until they accept to be tested or are adequately vaccinated," the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale wrote in an email Friday.

The network representing south-central Montreal said it had suspended four workers who refused to be tested, out of a total of 466 unvaccinated employees.

Laval and Gaspésie reported three suspensions each; the Côte-Nord, Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean and Bas-St-Laurent regions reported four each; and the Outaouais and Chaudière-Appalaches regions each reported about five.

Numbers in Abitibi-Témiscamingue were higher, with 10 suspensions in the regional health network and eight from independent agencies. The CISSS des Îles-de-la-Madeleine, in the east of the province, reported no suspensions.

The government had originally set an Oct. 15 deadline for health workers to be vaccinated, but pushed the date back by a month in the hopes of convincing more workers to get the shot.

On Wednesday, Dubé backed off the mandate altogether, admitting that suspending the three per cent of workers who remained unvaccinated would force the system to cut or reorganize services. New hires, however, must be fully vaccinated, he said.

"As workers in the health network, you have a moral duty to protect the clients that you treat and to protect your fellow citizens," Dubé told a news conference, addressing unvaccinated workers. "You also need to show solidarity with your colleagues who may have to suffer an even greater shortage of staff if you find yourself suspended."

The government has been trying to fill staff shortages in the system by offering bonuses, recruiting nurses, and trying to convince part-timers to switch to full-time work.

On Thursday, the Health Department reported that it had hired a total of 864 new people since late September, including 117 in the past week, and had convinced a total of 2,713 part-timers to go full time. Those numbers were up by 737 from one week prior.

Meanwhile, the Quebec government reported 571 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and one more death attributed to the novel coronavirus. Overall COVID-19-related hospitalizations dropped by one, to 240, and the number of people in intensive care dropped by six, to 57.

The province's public health institute said about 90.7 per cent of residents 12 and over had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 88.1 per cent were fully vaccinated. Quebec has 4,996 active reported cases of COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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