The Village of South River has begun the process of creating a COVID-19 vaccination policy for employees and volunteers of the municipality, including firefighters.
A draft document, discussed at the Sept. 27 regular meeting of council, is now being circulated to all stakeholders for input.
The tentative date for the village to have a policy in place is by the end of October, which gives it two council meetings before that time to make revisions.
Although the draft policy is being circulated council is doing so reluctantly, the main reason being the municipality's lack of expertise on exactly what should be included, as was pointed out by Deputy Mayor Doug Sewell.
“It's very unfortunate we're being asked to make the policy,” Sewell said.
“But I have no idea what the policy should be and yet we're being asked to formulate it.”
Clerk-administrator Don McArthur told the Nugget that Ontario Regulation 364/20 directs business organizations to establish, implement and ensure compliance with a COVID-19 vaccination policy.
He said it's his understanding that municipalities fall into this business organization category.
However, McArthur agreed with Sewell that municipalities should not be responsible for putting together vaccination policies.
“They should be mandated from a different level,” McArthur said.
He cited the local health unit as one example that could provide direction on what form a vaccination policy could take.
He said the Ontario government, or the overseers of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, also could be the entities that put together a policy.
“It's not our (area of) expertise and I find it very disturbing that we've been put in this position at all,” McArthur said.
But Mayor Jim Coleman said the village has a responsibility to act in the best interests of the people. And in this instance, the responsibility of formulating a vaccination policy has fallen on the village.
Coleman agreed with a suggestion made earlier during the council meeting that employees of the municipality who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 should be tested on a regular basis.
He said, “This way, we know what we're dealing with.”
Council agreed on this and as a result, the draft policy calls for regular testing of all unvaccinated personnel of the village, including volunteers.
Another component of the draft policy is an education section that would address the benefits of being vaccinated.
McArthur said the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit has literature about this and suggested the information be added to the draft policy.
As the draft policy begins making its way to all stakeholders, council may get pushback from the volunteer firefighters of the South River Machar Fire Department.
Fire Chief Risto Maki told council some firefighters have received the COVID-19 vaccine, while others have not.
“Those who are vaccinated have no concerns (working) with those who are not vaccinated,” and vice versa, he said, adding, “They are supportive of each other and work cooperatively.”
Maki told council he has made it a point not to question the personal decisions of the firefighters.
He said the COVID risk to firefighters is relatively low as a result of the policies and procedures in place and how they handle emergencies.
“As a result of COVID-19 and moving forward indefinitely, we have increased the PPE (personal protective equipment) we wear,” Maki said.
Maki also said firefighters wear N-95 masks, which add another layer of protection.
“With the precautions we've taken, I think we're well protected and well suited to protect the community.”
Maki said some firefighters have “expressed a great concern over any (vaccination) policy coming forward.”
No one has quit the department over a potential vaccination policy and Maki said he's doing his best to encourage everyone to stay.
Maki told council he would support a draft policy with a vaccine education component that addresses the need for vaccinations, and also a self-assessment section.
“I think starting slow with the policy is the answer,” he said.
“It's not too restrictive at the beginning and it can develop. We don't have to be the first out of the gate. We can wait until other municipalities take it on.”
He said perhaps the health unit or provincial government could take on more of a leadership role on vaccination policies in the short term.
In polling other area fire departments, Maki said so far, none have such a policy in place.
Maki said local firefighters have not shied away from doing their job during the pandemic.
He told council in fact just the opposite has happened, with many signing on for extra duties while facing the unknowns of the pandemic.
The fire chief said firefighters already make many sacrifices and he doesn't want to add to the stress they face when carrying out their functions.
“We're fortunate to have people who take on so much,” Maki said.
“I just ask that we give them a little bit of breathing space as this unfolds in front of us.”
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget