Mon. Aug 15th, 2022

November 15 stipulates that Ontario long-term care workers must be immunized or lose access to their workplaces. It’s up to the homes what happens after that, but many operators had already set dates to place unvaccinated people on leave, citing the devastating effect of COVID-19 and the risk of the highly transmissible Delta variant

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Hundreds of Ontario workers in hospitals and long-term care may be out of work for weeks to come because they were not vaccinated against COVID-19, further complicating what advocates call a “perfect storm” of staff shortages.

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The president of a union representing workers in long-term care, hospitals and nursing homes said the staffing problem, driven by low wages, lack of full-time jobs and poor working conditions, precedes the pandemic, and vaccination mandates are likely to add to that.

“It will have an impact on staff who are already at a critical time,” Sharleen Stewart of SEIU Healthcare said in an interview. “It’s kind of awakened the perfect storm now.”

November 15 stipulates that Ontario long-term care workers must be immunized or lose access to their workplaces. It’s up to the homes what happens after that, but many operators had already set dates to place unvaccinated people on leave, citing the devastating effect of COVID-19 and the risk of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

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Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief physician, said Ontario is looking closely at the “unintended consequence” of staff shortages related to vaccine mandates, but maintained that some jobs are needed to protect the vulnerable.

A spokeswoman for the long-term care minister said the ministry will work with homes to provide support if needed.

SEIU Healthcare is among those calling for policies to be applied across the healthcare system out of concern that unvaccinated long-term care nurses may jump into related areas.

Stewart also argued that unvaccinated workers — struggling with heavy workloads, low staff, low wages, and insecure work arrangements — without improving long-term care conditions have no incentive to overcome their reluctance to keep their jobs.

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“They think it’s worth staying here,” she said.

Dr.  Kumanan Wilson, a physician at Ottawa Hospital and CEO of the immunization tracking software company CANImmunize, speaks at a rally calling on Ontario to adopt a provincial COVID-19 vaccine mandate in Ottawa, Aug. 22.
Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a physician at Ottawa Hospital and CEO of the immunization tracking software company CANImmunize, speaks at a rally calling on Ontario to adopt a provincial COVID-19 vaccine mandate in Ottawa, Aug. 22. Photo by The Canadian Press / Justin Tang

Ontario has not followed Quebec’s leadership to demand immunization for all health workers. But many hospitals have implemented their own tough policies. Deadlines for workers to show proof of their shots or face unpaid leave – or dismissal – are now threatening.

A hospital in Windsor, Ont., Announced last week that it had fired 57 people who were not vaccinated by a certain deadline. A group of hospitals in the Waterloo area, Ont., Have given staff time until next Tuesday to be vaccinated or take leave. Grand River Hospital in Kitchener said Friday that 93 percent of staff had been vaccinated before the deadline and acknowledged the possible interruptions that could come.

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“We also recognize that there may be an impact on selected services and waiting times, and we will do everything we can to ensure that we mitigate that effect,” CEO Ron Gagnon said in a statement.

The University Health Network, which reports a 97 percent vaccination rate, has given employees of the Toronto Hospital Network until October 22 to be vaccinated or lose their jobs.

A group of frontline workers, including health workers and members of the police and fire department, are gathering for a silent protest outside the Ontario law in Toronto on Monday, September 13, 2021.
A group of frontline workers, including health professionals and members of the police and fire department, are gathering for a silent protest outside the Ontario law in Toronto on Monday, September 13, 2021. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young

The head of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario said the shortage of health care workers is “a crisis of megaproportion” that is largely unrelated to vaccine resistance. But Doris Grinspun argued that the impact of vaccine mandates could be diminished if the province applied the policy across the entire health care system.

“People need to work,” Grinspun said in an interview. “How many will leave if it is across the entire system? Where are they going? ”

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Trade unions and workplaces are still working with unvaccinated workers to overcome their hesitation.

A long-term nursing home in Toronto recently lost 36 percent of staff to unpaid leave because they were not vaccinated.

22 residents of Copernicus Lodge died of COVID-19 in previous outbreaks. A spokeswoman for the Toronto Home, which serves Polish immigrants, said avoiding multiple deaths was a motivating factor in getting the mandatory vaccination policy out in early September.

Marla Antia said the home was also worried about losing a significant number of employees to illness if vaccination rates remained low when the fourth wave hit.

Since going on leave, Antia said 32 of the 111 affected workers have since reported receiving at least one vaccine dose.

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Where are they going

The home plans to continue running vaccination clinics to accommodate people who change their minds and have not yet decided what will happen to those who do not meet the requirements after the deadline.

“We’ve seen the needle move a little bit, so it gives us hope,” Marla Antia said in an interview. “We would love to have everyone back.”

Carla Sleep said the vaccination mandate has provided peace of mind as a worker and with her mother, who lives in a nursing home.

“It makes me feel more confident about it becoming a standard,” she said.

Sleep’s workplace has not had a major problem with vaccination doubts, but she noted that understaffing has worsened since she began as a personal support worker nearly two decades ago. She said it is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Revenue is rising among even the vaccinated new employees, sleep is working with, and chronic understaffing has left her and other colleagues discouraged.

“It’s going to be the hard part,” she said. “Unless you have good salaries and people are properly trained and we get the right workforce in there, it does not change.”

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