Quebec’s premier and its health minister on Wednesday defended their decision to impose mandatory vaccination for health-care workers, even as an opposition party and several unions urged them to push back the deadline to avoid potential service breakdowns.
As of last week, some 7,000 front-line health-care workers remained unvaccinated and could face suspension without pay after the government’s Oct. 15 deadline.
Jeff Begley, the head of the federation of health and social services unions, said that with less than two weeks to go before the deadline, most unions still have very few details on the government’s plan to address the looming staff shortage.
He said he understands that officials want to wait until the last minute to have up-to-date vaccination rates before unveiling the plan, but said the lack of information is adding more stress for health workers who are already burned out from a year and a half of fighting the pandemic.
“I dare to hope that at the local level, the employers understand how employees are at the end of their ropes,” he said in a phone interview.
Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon held a news conference on Wednesday alongside five other health-care union heads, urging the government to delay the deadline to avoid a “generalized break in services.”
Health Minister Christian Dubé said last week he had asked all the regional health networks to submit a plan by Oct. 1 on how to handle a possible lack of personnel after Oct. 15, but he has yet to publicize the details.
On Wednesday, Plamondon and the union heads blasted the government for their lack of transparency, and they called on the Legault government to explain how the province would avoid service disruptions in an already understaffed and overwhelmed health-care network.
Premier François Legault during question period Wednesday defended the mandatory vaccination plan, incredulous that anyone would question the idea that health-care workers who treat patients need to be vaccinated.
“I think he is sending a very bad message with his question this morning, suggesting that it would be a mistake to put compulsory vaccination in the health network on Oct. 15,” Legault said in response to a question from the Parti Québécois’s health critic.
While Legault acknowledged that the province is short of nurses, he maintained there was currently “no break in services” and the plan would be carried out in a safe manner. He said only five of 1,000 health facilities have suspended certain services, such as obstetrics, but he said patients can get those services elsewhere.
Dubé, when pressed to clarify his plan on how to manage the possible loss of personnel, said the health network was working to reorganize schedules in light of the deadline.
He also maintained that the government had taken action to alleviate the short staffing, pointing to a project announced earlier this week that will allow some ambulance paramedics to work in emergency rooms on Montreal’s south shore.
“I think we’re taking concrete action every day, Mr. Speaker, and we’ll continue to do so,” he said.
Begley said the vaccination rate among the workers he oversees is high overall _– over 95 per cent — but it’s lower in some regions, such as Montreal’s east end.
He said that fully maintaining services in regions with lower rates will likely involve either requiring workers to do jobs they don’t usually do, or asking already overwhelmed staff to work even harder.
“It seems impossible to me that there won’t be some places in Quebec where there won’t be breaks in services,” said Begley, who said he would have preferred the government push back the vaccination deadline to allow workers more time to get both shots.
But while some union heads were expressing concerns over the vaccination deadline, one long-term care home owner said his fears had been assuaged.
Paul Arbec, the head of a group representing private care homes and president of Groupe Arbec, had previously expressed concern over the Oct. 15 deadline, but said Wednesday that he’s changed his tune after seeing how the mandate helped to convince most of the remaining reluctant employees to get vaccinated.
In an email, he said his group still stood to lose “a few employees per facility” due to the mandate, but felt it had a solid contingency plan in place and would be able to recruit enough new people to maintain services.
Meanwhile, Quebec reported 506 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and three more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Health officials said COVID-19-related hospitalizations rose by three, to 294, while the number of people in intensive care remained stable at 90.
Officials said an additional 8,846 doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered Tuesday, including 5,267 second doses.