Whitewater favours policy but vaccines not mandatory

·10 min read

Whitewater Region – Council has voted in favour of a vaccination policy for employees, volunteers, contractors and council – but it was not a unanimous decision.

After a long discussion last Tuesday night, and in a recorded vote requested by Councillor Daryl McLaughlin, six council members voted in favour of bringing in a policy -- himself, Mayor Mike Moore, Reeve Cathy Regier and Councillors Charlene Jackson, Neil Nicholson and Dave Mackay, while Councillor Chris Olmstead, who at first said he was going to abstain from voting, voted against it following a one-and-a-quarter-hour discussion.

While township staff and volunteers will not be forced to be doubled vaxxed, those who are not will undergo a weekly antigen test at a cost of $40 and although it was initially expected the employees and volunteers would pay for the test themselves, council agreed near the end of the discussion the township will reimburse those costs.

Chief Administrative Officer Robert Tremblay reviewed the report and policy he prepared regarding vaccination and testing and noted the policy is a “mirror” of Renfrew County’s policy, which was passed by the county’s financial and administration committee, and then reviewed by the township’s legal staff.

He reminded council under the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal vaccination requirements are permissible.

“The proposed policies provide a good balance in terms of a staged approach,” he said.

The first vaccine dose is required by December 1 while the second must be completed by January 31, 2022. Exemptions are allowable for medical reasons and those wishing not to get the vaccine and unable to get an exemption will be expected to submit an antigen test on a weekly basis, Mr. Tremblay noted.

“The tests are about $40 at Shopper’s Drug Mart…and we have confirmed that,” he said.

There is a second policy for council, with similar requirements, but council is not subject to progressive discipline, Mr. Tremblay said.

“Progressive discipline would result if people were uncooperative, provided false information or did not provide an attestation, refused to do the education video or submit to testing,” he said. “We would go through a progressive discipline approach versus an automatic suspension.

“So, we would try and work with everybody.

“The goal here is not to be punitive, but to ensure that everyone is safe and I should say that, when we talk about safety, we’re talking about against COVID,” Mr. Tremblay continued. “It’s to make sure none of our staff, vaccinated or not, don’t get sick and that we have a safe workplace and people can continue doing their job and have gainful employment.

“The goal, I think, is to get to herd immunity, to get the hell out of the pandemic as quickly as we can and these policies can be changed over time.”

Councillor Olmstead Opposes Policy

Coun. Olmstead, who opposed having a policy at the earlier October council meeting, still had not changed his mind.

“You guys know my thoughts based on comments at the last council meeting,” he said. “I have received no less than 12 calls from staff since the meeting.”

What he didn’t mention until later was the phone calls were to thank him for forcing the conversation, not to advise whether staff were vaccinated or not.

“I did not get into politics to make health decisions,” Coun. Olmstead said. “I got into politics to make growth and opportunity and business.”

He noted council asked for more information, more data, so a decision could not be made, not a prepared policy.

However, Coun. Jackson disagreed, saying council asked the CAO to come back with a policy and how it was going to happen.

As for statistics, she said, “there is nobody around the table here that’s qualified to bring that forward.”

Holding up a fistful of papers, Coun. Olmstead said, “I have the local stats. I rely on good, quality, local data, not news, not Facebook or Israel or Texas or any other BS out there.”

He said each council member received the statistical sheets from Renfrew County’s Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Cushman.

“The question is, ‘what’s the established benchmark?’. It’s a pandemic, it’s global, but what is the benchmark? We are kind of starting to go back to normal.”

“Is it the number of cases, is it time, are we talking months, years? What is going back to normal?” Coun. Olmstead questioned.

This pandemic has affected many people’s mental status, he said, noting 50 percent of families are dealing with mental issues and much of it is because of the pandemic.

There are also statistics regarding those who had adverse events to the vaccine, which number 184, about 2/10ths of one percent, which is not many, he said. There has been two years of COVID and only nine months of vaccine, he added.

“I’m not saying don’t believe in it, I’m saying I think it’s too early to tell the staff…to put a gun to their head and say ‘take this thing’,” Coun. Olmstead said. “I wish we could leave it up to their doctors. I’m not a medical expert, never will be. I tell you, I don’t want to be on the hook for it.”

He said he felt it was too early to force a policy and he was not happy with the policy presented. While the policy does not state people can lose their jobs if they don’t get the vaccine, he questioned if that would be the next step, noting there are companies who have put this kind of policy in place.

He also said he was not in favour of forcing employees to pay for a COVID test out of their pockets, noting for some that could mean two hours of wages each week.

“Obviously I’m very passionate about it,” he said. “I don’t like making decisions on people’s health, that’s why I’m so passionate. I can make a decision on a $13 million (wastewater) plant and get over it in two minutes. Someone’s health, that’s different.”

Not Telling Employees To Get Vaccinated

Coun. Jackson disagreed council is making a health choice for anyone.

“We are not saying that they shall be vaccinated,” she said. “If they choose not to, and that’s their health choice, not ours, theirs. I take contention with that statement.

“We’re not telling them to get vaccinated. We’re putting a policy in place,” she continued. “The cost (COVID) that has costed businesses, municipalities, the government, to provide masks, to provide cleaning products, to provide extra cleaning, to provide these partitions (between each council member), to provide so many things, it’s such a costly way of doing business now, we have to at some point in time, it has to go down.”

She pointed out in October there were at least 12 COVID cases out of Madawaska Valley.

People are travelling in and out of the county now, Coun. Jackson said.

“If no one can come or go from Renfrew County, then we’re safe,” she said. “I’m reasonably safe, my family is reasonably safe. The problem is, now we are opening up, borders are opening, the airports are opening, we’re able to travel.

“I’m going to be one of those first ones. If I can figure out a date, I’m going to travel,” Coun. Jackson said. “I want that freedom. I’m not making a health decision for any individuals, but I want out of this pandemic and there are a lot of companies that are forcing employees to get a vaccination, Hydro One being one, hospitals being two, long-term care, paramedics, all forcing.

“We are not going to that extent, and we’re not making that health decision. We’re giving them that option. We’re making a decision to move forward out of this pandemic,” she concluded.

Coun. Olmstead said he disagreed with having staff pay for the tests.

“We are creating financial hardship for the person who has to pay out of pocket and get tested,” he said. “Meanwhile, we have dinner provided to us at every council meeting, paid for. We’re not out of pocket, we all have expense accounts. We donate here and there to causes, but we are creating financial hardship for our employees.”

Later on, he said, “listen guys, we spend money here like a drunken sailor sometimes, dinners, I don’t know the cost, we have expense accounts, and we’re used to going to Toronto (for conventions), so what is that costing?”

In doing the math, Coun. Jackson said 12 employees, if counting those who had contacted Coun. Olmstead, tested for 52 weeks, at $40 each, that’s $25,000.

“Is that fair to put that on the ratepayers, fair to put it on the employees?” she asked.

As for costing the township $25,000, Coun. Olmstead disagreed, saying there is less expensive testing that can be done.

Coun. Nicholson came prepared with a statement.

“We have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for our staff and for the members of the public in contact with our staff in our facilities,” he read.

“I will not judge or be judged based on personal decision. It’s not our responsibility to review their situation (to be vaccinated or not). That’s between them and their medical professional, but we owe it to his son, to our staff and the public, that we do everything we can to offer protection for those people who can’t or aren’t vaccinated yet.

“In doing so, it means taking every possible step to minimize this virus, including adopting this policy, along with masking and keeping safe distances.”

Councillors Mackay and McLaughlin agreed with the township picking up the tab to pay for the COVID testing for those employees who are not vaccinated.

“We have a responsibility to our employees to try and protect them,” Coun. McLaughlin said. “I understand what Coun. Olmstead is saying, we’re infringing on somebody’s right, but we have to think as well, if it started and went through our employees and something happened, there’s where I sit. We need to have a policy, not to force people, but to protect people, is my thoughts.”

He wanted to find a way of easing the pain for staff who would have to pay for out-of-pocket testing, even if it’s paying half the cost.

Coun. Jackson also suggested, following up on a comment by Coun. Mackay, that there be a review date, and council agreed February 28 was a good date.

Coun. Mackay noted if council pushes the vaccine, there’s at least six or seven people who would have to leave the fire department, and those are skilled people.

Coun. Nicholson asked for two amendments to the policy, which were passed. The first is the township pay for the tests of those who request reimbursement and the second is to have a mandated review date.

Coun. Jackson had concerns with the number of people who would be involved with knowing who is not vaccinated as they would have to go through a series of staff to get reimbursed.

Treasurer Sean Crozier suggested staff could review the amendment and come back to council with a solution, which was agreeable to all.

The motion to have the policy, with the two amendments, was passed by council.

Connie Tabbert, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader

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