Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé is giving health-care staff in oncology departments an ultimatum: either get vaccinated or be subject to three COVID-19 tests per week.
The new rule comes after at least four patients died following a coronavirus outbreak in the cancer ward of Fleurimont Hospital, located in Sherbrooke. A total of 17 patients tested positive. Two of them were treated in intensive care.
The outbreak prompted an open letter signed by 15 physicians. They wanted to highlight the fact that staff in oncology departments were not among those obligated to either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get screened regularly.
Dubé said the changes are in effect starting today.
"There is going to be a directive that will force people, health-care staff in oncology to either get vaccinated or get screened," Dubé said during a news conference Thursday.
"Either you get vaccinated, or get tested three times a week if you're not vaccinated. If that doesn't work, you'll get reassigned, and if that doesn't work, you'll be out of a job."
Initially, the government's decree applied to the following sectors and workplaces:
Emergency units, with the exception of psychiatric emergency units.
Intensive care units, with the exception of intensive psychiatric care.
COVID-19 clinics, including screening, assessment and vaccination clinics.
Units created to group together patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Residential and long-term care centres and certain other accommodations.
The decree states that workers in certain sectors have to show their employer proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
Those who refuse to provide proof of vaccination need to undergo recurrent preventive screening.
Workers can refuse to participate in the screening, in which case they will be reassigned to similar tasks in a sector not affected by the decree. If reassignment is refused or not possible, the workers will be put on leave without pay.
Dr. Michel Pavic, a medical oncologist and director of the hematology and oncology unit at Université de Sherbrooke, is relieved by the minister's decision. But he wonders why the government's initial decree excluded health-care staff in oncology departments.
"To be honest, my feeling is that it was an oversight," Pavic said.
CBC News asked the province's Health Ministry to explain why oncology staff were excluded from the list of health-care workers who needed to either get vaccinated or undergo strict screening.
That request was not immediately returned.
'There are people who died,' patients rights advocate laments
Paul Brunet, a patient rights advocate, says it's "quite surprising that we didn't act sooner."
"Why do I say that? Because there are people who died," Brunet said.
He believes health-care unions should make it mandatory for members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
"They say they want to protect [their members]. They're not protecting them if they don't force them to get vaccinated," Brunet said. "By not protecting them, they're also not protecting the patients that we defend."
Pavic maintains that his only intention in reaching out to the government was to protect patients by enforcing mandatory COVID-19 screenings in cancer wards.
However, he said he believes people have a right to forego vaccination if that's their preference.