Ontario, Quebec worry vaccine mandates will impact health care. These hospitals disagree

Click to play video: 'Mixed reaction to Quebec’s cancellation of health care vaccine mandate'
Mixed reaction to Quebec’s cancellation of health care vaccine mandate
WATCH: Despite backlash from some politicians following the health minister's change of plans for a vaccine mandate in the health care sector, a Quebec doctor and patient advocate are calling the move justified. This comes just one day after the minister pulled the plug on plans to make the COVID-19 vaccine compulsory for all health care workers starting Nov. 15. Gloria Henriquez reports. – Nov 4, 2021

Ontario and Quebec won’t impose a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for health-care workers in fear it will lead to labour shortages that will damage the health-care system.

However, three Canadian hospitals with vaccine mandates in place for almost two months say otherwise.

Holland Bloorview, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and SickKids all told Global News patient care has not been disrupted since their policies began on Sept. 7.

“At Holland Bloorview, having a mandatory vaccination policy has not impacted our ability to care for our patients at all,” said Julia Hanigsberg, president and CEO of the kids’ rehabilitation hospital in Toronto.

“We haven’t gotten pushback from our team. In fact, for the most part, every health-care worker I’ve spoken to feels safer because they know that their colleagues are vaccinated.”

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Denying and reversing mandates

The declarations come after the Ontario and Quebec governments said on Wednesday they would not make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for health-care workers in their jurisdictions.

Both provinces cited a potential impact in the ability to care for patients, despite Quebec indicating that 97 per cent of health-care workers are vaccinated. While the portion of those unvaccinated appears small overall — 14,000 haven’t received a first dose — about 5,000 of those are considered to be in direct contact with patients. It’s unclear what department or realm of the health-care system those employees work in.

Before Wednesday, Quebec was on track to require inoculation by Nov. 15, but said the loss of unvaccinated staff would have had a “devastating effect on the system.”

In October, when the province extended its previous deadline for health-care workers, the health minister said the system was slated to lose between 14,000 and 22,000 workers. The more recent data — 97 per cent vaccinated — suggests an uptick in inoculations as the now-dashed deadline neared.

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Not mandating COVID-19 vaccines for hospital workers ‘right decision for right now,’ says Elliott

In neighbouring Ontario, Premier Doug Ford said the province’s choice came after speaking to hospitals and health-care partners about the potential impact of a blanket policy, including “real-world evidence here in Ontario and across Canada.” The government spent time collecting data from the health-care industry, it said, before coming to Wednesday’s decision.

Ontario also pointed to the negative impact of a similar policy in B.C., where more than 3,000 workers were terminated, forcing the cancellation of surgeries and diagnostic tests.

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While the provincewide rule is now a thing of the past, individual hospitals can introduce their own vaccine mandates if they wish.

Global News reached out to the Ontario government to get an idea of how many unvaccinated health-care workers there are in the province, and what positions they hold, but did not receive responses by publication.

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High rates at some hospitals

At Holland Bloorview, which cares for youth and children with disabilities, roughly 70 per cent of its patients are not yet eligible to get vaccinated. Introducing a mandate was the “only reasonable thing to do,” Hanigsberg said.

“I can tell you from talking to the families of the children who are patients, that from their perspective, it gives them a tremendous amount of confidence to know that when they come to our hospital, everybody who is caring for their child has been vaccinated,” she said.

Roughly 1,004 Holland Bloorview staff are fully vaccinated, a 99 per cent inoculation rate. To date, five people have been terminated, including one full-time clinical member, three part-time or casual clinic staff and one non-clinical worker. The hospital wouldn’t elaborate further on what exactly their positions were.

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Click to play video: 'Do COVID-19 vaccine mandates really put health care systems at risk?'
Do COVID-19 vaccine mandates really put health care systems at risk?

Meanwhile, at Ottawa’s CHEO, a spokesperson told Global News its vaccine mandate has had no impact on patient care, as more than 99.7 per cent of full-time personnel and 98.9 per cent of part-time and casual employees are fully vaccinated.

“Decisions on vaccine mandates are now up to each Ontario healthcare organization,” CHEO president and CEO Alex Munter tweeted Thursday.

“CHEO will maintain our policy, which is now fully implemented. Like all other local hospitals, new hires must also be vaccinated.”

In an update Oct. 29, CHEO said out of nearly 4,000 employees, nine full-time workers chose not to get vaccinated. In addition, 14 part-time and casual personnel, who also work at other health-care organizations, also remain unvaccinated.

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“These people have made a choice not to work at CHEO and their affiliation with us has ended,” the hospital said in a statement.

At SickKids in Toronto, a spokesperson told Global News that out of 8,258 staff, 98.6 per cent are fully vaccinated; 114 employees, including corporate, clinical and research staff, both onsite and remote, have been placed on unpaid leaves of absence for not being inoculated or for not completing attestation.

Furthermore, 10.5 per cent of staff are partially vaccinated, and of them, 30 have clinical roles that could include nurses and allied health workers. But 100 per cent of active physicians, residents, fellows and medical learners are vaccinated.

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“It is our hope that every staff member who is currently not fully vaccinated will become fully vaccinated at their earliest opportunity and return from leave,” the spokesperson said.

“Patient care has not been disrupted and we do not anticipate any future disruptions as a result of the vaccine mandate policy.”

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Ontario will not mandate COVID-19 vaccine policy for hospital workers, says it doesn’t want to cancel surgeries

'Unfortunate' and 'surprising'

Advocates have been swift to condemn both governments for not requiring vaccination in the sectors.

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Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health equity lead at Kensington Health in Toronto, previously told Global News the choices go “against science.”

“This is really unfortunate news and really surprising, especially considering that policies like vaccine mandates for health workers have the potential to keep vulnerable patients who are accessing health care in places like hospitals safe,” he said.

Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and a medical microbiologist at McGill University Health Centre, told Global News Quebec’s decision could backfire.

“Health-care workers who are inadequately vaccinated will find themselves at higher risk of needing to be hospitalized,” he said.

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At Holland Bloorview, Hanigsberg said the hospital will continue to enforce mandatory vaccination.

“It contributes to team morale because the team feels safer, it contributes to patient and caregiver confidence, and the more we do this in a unified way, the safer we all are,” she said.

“I wouldn’t want to be the CEO of the hospital that doesn’t have this policy and becomes the place where people who are unwilling to be vaccinated want to go to work … we all know better than that, and I think we can all have the courage of our leadership to put mandatory vaccination in place to safeguard our patients.”

— with files from Saba Aziz.

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