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Alberta Health Services extends deadline for COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees

Alberta Health Services is extending the deadline for all employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to Nov. 30. Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press file

Alberta Health Services is extending the deadline for its mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy for all employees.

At the end of August, AHS announced that by Oct. 31 all employees, medical and midwifery staff, students, volunteers and contracted health-care providers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Read more: Alberta Health Services to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for physicians, staff, contract employees

In a news release Friday morning, AHS announced it is extending that deadline to Nov. 30. With the pressures of the fourth wave of COVID-19, AHS wants to ensure it gives every opportunity to employees to get vaccinated and submit proof.

“We stand by the mandatory immunization policy and it will be fully implemented,” AHS president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said.

“We are extending the deadline to give all employees more time to submit their proof of vaccination and, if they haven’t yet, to get fully vaccinated. We’re providing more time so our workforce is as safe and robust as it can be.”

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Read more: Alberta Health Services to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for physicians, staff, contract employees

AHS said 94 per cent of full-time and part-time employees and physicians have already submitted proof of having two doses of COVID-19 vaccine. More than 97 per cent of ICU staff are fully immunized, according to Friday’s update.

There have been challenges with low vaccination rates at a small number of continuing care sites, particularly in rural communities, AHS said.

“Extending the deadline will ensure staff at those sites have an opportunity to report their immunization, and for sites to develop contingency plans as needed,” read the AHS news release.

Yiu said that while health-care workers in general have a higher rate of immunization than the general public — 10 to 15 per cent higher — the rate of immunization in health-care workers also tends to mirror the general demographics in the regions in which they work.

“There’s no question that we have challenges in areas within Central zone, within South zone and also within the North zone and so working with those areas to ensure that we can continue our process around answering any questions, educating them about the safety of vaccinations and the importance of keeping not just ourselves safe but also our loved ones safe,” Yiu said.

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The mandatory vaccination policy applies to all AHS, Alberta Precision Labs, Carewest, CapitalCare and Covenant Health employees, medical and midwifery staff, students and volunteers.

The policy also applies to about 28,000 casual employees. As of Friday, AHS said approximately 76 per cent of casual employees have submitted proof of vaccination.

Sean Chilton, VP of people, health professions and information technology with AHS, said casual employees are not regularly scheduled and can pick up shifts as they choose. He said about 72 per cent of casuals have worked in the last three months and 84 per cent have worked in the last 12 months.

With casuals included, the immunization status of the AHS organization is around 90 per cent.

Read more: COVID-19: Alberta telephone town hall to address vaccine questions around fertility and pregnancy

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To date, AHS has received just over 1,400 requests for medical or religious exemptions to the mandatory vaccine policy. Yiu said all requests will be reviewed before the November deadline.

“Our bar is pretty high here for accommodations. We’re anticipating very few of them will be granted,” she explained.

“We are going to be reviewing each of them very thoroughly.”

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AHS said 61 employees have resigned because of the vaccination policy, including 31 in clinical roles, of which 11 were registered nurses.

“We don’t want anybody to resign, we don’t want people to quit. Health care is a profession that is more of a calling sometimes than a job and we want people to stay in the system, but we also want them to be healthy and we also want them to be able to protect and provide best quality of care for our staff,” Yiu said.

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“At the end of the day, it’s about protecting patients, continuing care residents, and anyone in our care, as well as looking out for our staff. We have a responsibility to do that.”

Vaccination appointments can be booked online through AHS or the government of Alberta’s central booking system.

Those who do not comply with the policy and who are not granted an exemption will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence.

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