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‘They walked away from health care’: Okanagan care home workers suddenly quit over vaccine mandate

Click to play video: 'Bracing for more staff shortages at long-term care homes in wake of new vaccine mandate'
Bracing for more staff shortages at long-term care homes in wake of new vaccine mandate
WATCH: A major step on Oct. 12 in preventing COVID-19 from causing devastating and deadly outcomes in assisted living and long-term care homes. As of Tuesday, anyone working inside these facilities must be vaccinated. And while the vast majority of staff have been immunized, hundreds across B.C. remain unvaccinated and are now off the job. Klaudia Van Emmerik reports. – Oct 12, 2021

Care homes in B.C.’s Interior are struggling with staffing shortages after a handful of workers suddenly quit over B.C.’s new COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all long-term and assisted living employees.

Hendrik Van Ryk, chief operating officer and vice-president of human resources at The Hamlets, said approximately 20 workers resigned or were placed on unpaid leave before the deadline on Oct. 12.

The biggest impacts were at its Penticton and Kamloops locations, Van Ryk told Global News.

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“They walked away from health care altogether,” he said.

“They just simply said, ‘I am not going to get vaccinated, I am not going to stay in health care, I’ve left health care altogether.’ So that number was relatively small.”

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Most of them simply didn’t want the government telling them what to do, he added.

“The second reason was a fear of the vaccine — too new, hasn’t been around long enough.”

Click to play video: 'Interior care facilities planning for staff vaccine deadline'
Interior care facilities planning for staff vaccine deadline

Van Ryk said its long-term and assisted living facilities across B.C. are facing staff shortages as a result, but that shortages have been a “crisis” for years.

“This pandemic has exacerbated the issue, and mandatory vaccinations adds that one more bit of anxiety on everybody’s minds,” he said.

“We don’t have consistency in staff so we are using agencies, we are having staff that has to work overtime. Double shifts are a regular occurrence now. So we have tired staff. We are noticing increased illness due to the added number of shifts and hours that our team has to work.”

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He also said the quality of bedside care is declining as residential care workers are stretched thin.

He gave an example of fewer baths, less time getting residents up and moving around, and a reduction of one-on-one time with dementia patients.

He said The Hamlets reached out to the Interior Health Authority in advance of the vaccine mandate deadline, but that they offered little support.

“The simple answer was ‘no,’ they are struggling themselves with staffing.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. offers third dose of COVID-19 vaccine to some immunocompromised residents'
B.C. offers third dose of COVID-19 vaccine to some immunocompromised residents

Interior Health declined to comment and referred Global Okanagan to the Ministry of Health.

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According to the ministry, as of Oct. 11, 96 per cent of all long-term care staff in B.C. have received a first dose, and 93 per cent have received a second dose.

“Despite increasing vaccination levels amongst staff in long-term care, the vaccination rates vary throughout the province and by facility,” said the ministry.

“Health authorities are actively engaged with long-term care and assisted living operators across the province to assess the impact of mandatory vaccination on staffing levels. Health authorities report that existing contingency plans are ensuring residents receive the care they need.

Read more: COVID-19 vaccines now mandatory for all B.C. long-term and assisted living staff

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“Contingency plans for periods of low staffing include a number of options including offering staff additional shifts (including overtime) and redeploying staff from other areas.”

The ministry continued, saying “we continue to work with health authorities and care home operators to make sure workers have the information they need to get vaccinated.”

Almost 2,000 of B.C.’s long-term care and assisted living staff were unvaccinated prior to the mandate taking effect, the province said.

B.C. eased the requirements, saying staff either need to be fully vaccinated or need to have had a single dose at least seven days before the deadline and take increased COVID-19 precautions.

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Click to play video: 'Mandatory vaccines for long-term care staff expected to significantly reduce outbreaks of COVID-19'
Mandatory vaccines for long-term care staff expected to significantly reduce outbreaks of COVID-19

The deadline extension reflects a need to ensure staffing and care remain sufficient and to support staff to get vaccinated in a timely way, Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.

All care providers have submitted staffing plans to manage what could be a significant portion of the workforce being absent or turning over in the coming weeks, Henry said on Oct. 6.

Only medical exemptions will be allowed, and those people will be required to take enhanced precautions.

All applications are reviewed by Henry’s office individually and workers can continue to work while they are being assessed.

Read more: Mandatory vaccines a ‘game-changer’ at COVID-19-plagued Kelowna care home, doctor says

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The changes also require visitors to long-term care and assisted living to be fully vaccinated starting Oct. 12, and visitors to acute care by Oct. 26, with some exceptions for end-of-life and palliative care.

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The province will require anyone hired to work in long-term care and assisted living between Oct. 12 and Nov. 30 to have at least a single dose seven days before starting work, and receive their second dose within 35 days.

Click to play video: 'IHA advising healthcare staff in Kelowna to hide parking passes'
IHA advising healthcare staff in Kelowna to hide parking passes

The Delta variant has hit long-term care residents particularly hard recently, with most outbreaks started by unvaccinated staff and visitors, Henry said.

Long-term care residents have also begun to receive booster doses of vaccine six months after their second shots to maximize their immune response.

— With files from Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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