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COVID-19: Frustration peaks over London, Ont. councillor’s vaccine comments

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Members of the corporate services committee made a point of expressing frustration over what they’ve called Coun. Michael van Holst‘s repeated attempts to use misinformation and conjecture to question the City of London’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Monday’s meeting, members received a letter from van Holst concerning the city’s proof-of-vaccination policy for councillors. Specifically, van Holst took issue with those who have attestations that they are not vaccinated being treated differently than those who have been vaccinated.

Read more: PCR testing to be used in ‘limited circumstances’ when schools reopen in Ontario

“One of the things that I think is the worst result of the pandemic is the loss of respect between family members, between friends, between people who work together because they have different opinions on how it should be dealt with,” van Holst said at the meeting.

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He went on to suggest that vaccines weren’t “quite what we hoped they would be” and that “we’re seeing vaccine side effects as well,” before committee member and Mayor Ed Holder interrupted van Holst to call a point of order.

“I’ve listened to this for some time and what I get particularly concerned about is when anyone, be it a member of council or someone without the appropriate credentials, speaks to issues as if they were fact,” said Holder.

“I’m not going to get into that opinion of it, but I’m going to challenge the credentials of our colleague here who is presenting his conjecture as fact. And I think that’s not only offensive, but I do believe it is a point of order. That’s exceptionally misleading.”

This is not the first time that Holder has called out van Holst’s rhetoric. He previously filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner after van Holst spoke at an anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate rally in October 2021.

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Van Holst tried to suggest he was “simply quoting information that is out there” before the committee chair, Coun. Shawn Lewis, cautioned him against presenting opinion as fact or “putting words into the mouths of the people who are in leadership positions.”

Van Holst then pivoted to raising concerns about testing requirements for those who are unvaccinated. City manager Lynne Livingstone explained that the city works with each staff member with an attestation to come up with an individual plan.

“In some instances, that may mean remote work, which means they do not come into a facility, or it may mean that they are participating in the regular testing.

While he said he still had some concerns, van Holst ended his comments by thanking staff for coming up with an individual program for each impacted staff member.

Read more: Omicron has more asymptomatic carriers than earlier variants, early research suggests

Coun. Maureen Cassidy then suggested that the committee not only vote to receive the report, but also to take the extra step to specify that they will take no action on it.

“I’m one of the caregivers for my father, who’s 88 years old, legally blind, he has multiple health issues. I have to go to his house four times a month. He cannot be alone. I am doing everything in my power, including vaccinations and booster shots, to keep myself safe so that I don’t kill my father,” she said.

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“That is why I have asked the mover and seconder to take no action on this because I am so tired of talking about this. I’m tired of misinformation and disinformation being spread from the council floor.”

The committee voted unanimously to receive van Holst’s letter and take no action.

Read more: Internationally trained nurses to work in Ontario hospitals to ease staffing crunch

While van Holst’s letter called into question the effectiveness of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 and suggested that the response to the Omicron wave has been panic- and fear-driven, “even if the variant appears less threatening,” experts have noted that while data suggests Omicron is less severe, it is not “mild.”

Additionally, because the virus is so transmissible, a smaller percentage of a larger number of cases still works out to a very large number of hospitalizations, as evidenced by current provincial data.

Data released Tuesday indicates that 46 per cent of people currently in Ontario hospitals with COVID-19 were admitted for other reasons but it’s not clear how that compares with previous waves of the pandemic as that data was never provided.

The letter also argued that “any gain our hospitals may have made by mandating vaccines for all their employees has been neutralized by the loss of experienced staff.”

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In reality, in London, less than one per cent of staff at London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London were let go for failing to adhere to vaccine policies.

Read more: U.S. shatters global COVID record with 1.35M cases reported in a single day

The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table also suggested that the mandates would actually reduce staff shortages because fewer employees would be likely to get infected by the virus, though that data predates the arrival of the Omicron variant, which has resulted in 434 active staff cases at LHSC and 109 cases among health-care workers at St. Joseph’s as of Jan. 10 and also prompted a reduction in provincial isolation requirements.

The science around approved COVID-19 vaccinations is clear, but the legal and ethical aspects of vaccine mandates are less so. A series of recent decisions suggests labour arbitrators are considering the specifics of each workplace and policy, experts said, focusing on a balance between the rights of employees seeking not to be vaccinated and the rights of others to a safe workplace.

with files from Global News’ Gabby Rodrigues, Ryan Rocca, Andrew Graham and Sawyer Bogdan; The Canadian Press’s Paola Loriggio, Nicole Thompson and Holly McKenzie-Sutter; and Reuters’ Mrinalika Roy

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