FILE – A nurse attends to a patient in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital in Surrey, B.C., Friday, June 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

FILE – A nurse attends to a patient in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital in Surrey, B.C., Friday, June 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

B.C. nurses’ union ‘cannot support’ COVID vaccine mandate that could mean fewer staff

Health minister says province is working on plans to deal with fallout

Two major health care unions say they’re concerned about staffing challenges following Monday’s announcement of a vaccine mandate for all health care staff.

The B.C. Nurses’ Union said in a statement to Black Press Media Thursday (Sept. 16) that it “cannot support any order which will serve to remove even a single nurse or other health care worker from the healthcare system at a time of severe crisis.”

The BCNU said further that while it “strongly encourages” everyone, nurses included, to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the union “expects government and health employers to avoid any measures that may take nurses away from providing patient care.”

In a separate statement, the BCNU said it expects the province to come up with contingency plans if nurses quit in large numbers, citing pre-pandemic estimates that show B.C. will be 24,000 nurses short by 2029.

“The question for this government is how it intends to staff units where there are unvaccinated staff,” the BCNU said. “The additional stress this is creating in worksites for nurses is unacceptable.”

The BCNU said it has “always advocated for vaccination” and that a “very high percentage” of its members are already immunized against COVID-19.

For the members who are not vaccinated, the union said it is looking to employers to put in place other safety measures, including rapid testing, strict adherence to PPE protocols and redeployment of staff to other care settings.

However, the union said that since nurses’ vaccination rates are not equal across the province, some regions will struggle more than others.

“This reality can pose desperate staffing challenges in worksites where staffing is already stretched extremely thin,” the BCNU said.

“Taking nurses away from the bedside will have serious impacts on patient care.”

The BCNU declined to make a spokesperson available to Black Press Media to discuss the vaccine mandate further.

READ MORE: All health care workers in B.C. must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 26: Henry

A spokesperson for another major health care union in B.C. said that he’s not surprised to see the announcement, which was signalled weeks earlier by the provincial health officer.

Hospital Employee Union spokesperson Mike Old said that they have always supported a voluntary vaccination program and encouraged members to get immunized.

“That’s a position that until last month was also shared by the provincial health officer and the minister of health. Obviously, things have changed in terms of the Delta variant and its virulence.,” Old told Black Press Media by phone.

“So we are encouraging our members – the very few who are not vaccinated – now is the time to go seek credible information from a reliable source, like their family doctor and BC Centre for Disease Control and, you know, make a decision that keeps them in the healthcare system after October.

Some of their staff, like nurses in long-term care, already had a vaccine mandate that will be in effect as of Oct. 12. Overall, the union represents 50,000 employees across B.C., including in health records, housekeeping, dietary service and trades and as lab assistants and pharmacy techs

It’s likely that not all HEU members will be covered by the immunization requirement – the provincial health order is not yet available, but health officials said it would cover workers in patient-facing roles – but Old worries that it could push some staff to quit, putting further strain on an already stretched health care system, even though the union estimates more than 90 per cent of their members are already vaccinated.

“This system has been operating right at the edge since before the pandemic, and and there is a risk that some locations, this may cause a bit of a staffing crisis,” he said. “We can avoid that by, you know, supporting and encouraging workers to get summated.”

Speaking at an unrelated health ministry press conference Tuesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said that the province felt that the vaccine mandate was necessary but is working on plans to ensure that the system does not crash. The majority of patients in hospital and ICU are unvaccinated. B.C. government data show that from Sept. 7-13, people not fully vaccinated accounted for 76.5 per cent of cases and from Aug. 31-Sept. 13, they accounted for 87.3 cent of hospitalizations.

“I think it’s important not to speculate too much about the numbers [of people who may quit]. We know that the massive majority of health care workers have been immunized everywhere in B.C.,” Dix said, adding that with 87 per cent of the general adult population in B.C. already partially vaccinated, the number for health care staff is likely even higher.

“That said, we don’t want to lose anybody so we will be working with people to ensure that the maximum number of people are immunized. We are preparing to deal with this situation after Oct. 12.”

READ MORE: B.C. mandates COVID-19 vaccination for all long-term care, assisted living workers


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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