Alberta Health Services is temporarily adding proof of negative COVID-19 test to its mandatory vaccine policy in some communities where the mandate would result in staffing shortages and health care for Albertans.
“Alberta’s government is directing AHS to introduce, temporarily, frequent and targeted COVID-19 testing as part of the organization’s Immunization of Workers for COVID-19 Policy,” a news release from the province stated.
“Only sites considered at significant risk of service disruptions resulting from staffing shortages due to unimmunized employees will be part of the testing program.”
In a news conference on Monday, AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said the temporary rapid testing option would be available in a “small number of areas where lack of vaccination may impact patient care.”
It translates to about 260 AHS employees being eligible for the testing option at about 16 work locations across the province, she added.
That’s about 0.2 per cent of staff, Yiu said.
“I think that we (AHS) were prepared to stay our course. After saying that, we were also concerned about some of our smaller work locations in smaller communities in rural Alberta where service may be impacted,” Yiu said Monday afternoon.
“If the testing option can help mitigate and give us a bit more time… The rapid testing provides us with an option to make sure service is not disrupted.”
“I’ve heard from many Albertans, especially in smaller communities, who are worried this policy will impact patient care,” Health Minister Jason Copping said.
“We fully support AHS’ immunization policy, and I appreciate the tens of thousands of health-care workers who have made the right choice to get vaccinated. This directive is about protecting patient care — primarily in rural areas — which will always be my top priority.”
A positive rapid test result will mean that employee will be off work until they receive a PCR test result.
Any employee who opts out of the rapid testing option will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence. Any site that opts out of the testing option will be subject to review, Yiu said.
The proof of negative COVID-19 testing program begins on Dec. 13. Alberta Health Services said the temporary testing directive will be reviewed by the end of March 2022.
AHS’ immunization policy deadline will also be adjusted to Dec. 13.
“It is disappointing that about 3,000 of or staff either haven’t submitted proof of vaccination or have decided to remain unvaccinated,” Yiu said. “We’ve done all we can do to encourage them. We’ve reached out to provide evidence-based reasons to get the vaccine and have worked hard to answer any questions or concerns that have been raised and we have stressed just how valuable the vaccine is in protecting those in our care.
“Unfortunately there are a small number of areas where lack of vaccination may impact patient care and this raises concerns for us all.”
“We stand steadfast on our vaccine policy,” Yiu stressed.
“It was implemented to protect patients and health-care workers. AHS must do all it can do to ensure that patients — particularly those who are most vulnerable and immunocompromised — are protected while in our care.
“Health workers have an ethical and professional responsibility to protect others. Immunization is a tool to assist in meeting the standard.”
Yiu acknowledged that the introduction of this temporary testing option might frustrate physicians and staff who’ve already been immunized.
“That’s why I want to end by thanking everyone again who did the right thing to get vaccinated for COVID-19,” she said. “Because of you, our hospitals are safer for our patients and our front-line health workers are better protected.”
Any AHS employee who is not fully vaccinated by Dec. 13 will be put on an unpaid leave of absence.
To date, more than 96 per cent of full and part-time AHS employees and 99.5 per cent of physicians have been fully vaccinated, Yiu said.
About 3,000 AHS staff have either not submitted proof of vaccination or have chosen to remain unvaccinated.