Unvaccinated hospital staff won't be required to undergo rapid testing, but care home staff will

Unvaccinated health-care ­workers in hospitals won’t be given thrice-weekly rapid tests for COVID, as will be required of their unvaccinated ­counterparts in seniors homes starting Monday.

“At this time, the government is not introducing the same rapid test policy for staff in hospitals or other acute-care settings,” the Health Ministry told the Times Colonist.

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When visiting restrictions in long-term care and assisted living ease on Monday, workers who are not fully vaccinated will be required under a ­provincial health order to wear a mask at work and be tested for ­COVID-19 regularly, using rapid tests. In addition, facilities must provide public-health authorities with a list of workers’ vaccination status.

B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie said it’s “not unreasonable” to expect workers involved in direct patient care to be vaccinated for COVID-19, noting many patients in acute care are frail and elderly, and that fully vaccinated elderly people have contracted and died from COVID.

Mackenzie said the province should require COVID vaccinations for all health-care workers, adding new nurses must show proof of a range of vaccinations prior to being eligible for practicum work.

“We are health-care workers, we have chosen to work in direct contact, by definition, with people who are compromised in some way,” said Mackenzie, who worked in health care and seniors care prior to her role as advocate. “We’ve chosen that and with that choice comes ­certain expectations.”

The last time the province tried to mandate vaccinations and later masks for unvaccinated health-care workers, they lost on both fronts against the B.C. Nurses’ Union. In 2019, BCNU hailed its agreement with the employers association that nurses would not be subjected to the “punitive” practice of wearing a mask if unvaccinated. BCNU president Christine Sorensen was not available for an interview Friday and the BCNU said it would not be commenting.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said last month the province is exploring the idea of requiring staff in long-term care homes to be vaccinated. For now, public health officials are relying on education and removing any barriers to getting health-care workers vaccinated.

Island Health said 92 per cent of physicians and nurse practitioners and 88 per cent of all Island Health employees have received at least one shot.

Island Health chief medical health officer Dr. Richard Stanwick said since mandatory vaccinations and mask wearing have been the subject of human-rights complaints and court challenges, it’s easier to aim to get 85 per cent of the population fully vaccinated to create herd immunity.

“If we can keep the numbers of the virus low in the community in terms of circulation, it’s not going to basically get into our schools, into our long-term care facilities, or in our hospitals, and that’s why there’s such a big push to get as many of the people on the Island immunized as possible,” said Stanwick.

Stanwick hopes the mix of vaccinations, masks and other personal protective equipment will prove sufficient to protect vulnerable populations.

“If these don’t work, I can assure you that one of the things we will talk about, and certainly entertain, will be the idea of mandatory vaccination,” he said. “People feel that the safest thing is to make this a mandate and you’re probably right. But the question is … is this a fight that we need to engage in at this point in time?”

One issue, he said, is that there’s a national staffing shortage, and mandatory vaccination could see B.C. lose workers.

Infectious-disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, however, said provinces and institutions should mandate COVID vaccination for all health-care staff ­working directly with patients, and should seize the momentum to mandate influenza vaccines as well.

“I don’t understand why we tolerate low uptake of vaccine-preventable illnesses in patient-facing professionals who can put the most vulnerable people at risk,” Bogoch said, noting COVID vaccines are safe, effective and widely available.

“There’s very few easy fixes, but this is one of them.

“If you ensure that 100 per cent of patient-facing health-care providers are vaccinated, you will, quite frankly, prevent outbreaks and deaths in health-care settings — it’s as simple as that. It’s actually as simple as that.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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