Health Minister Jason Copping is expected to order Alberta Health Services to lift its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for staff, a move that experts say may unnecessarily endanger vulnerable patients. “Effective March 15, 2022, Alberta Health Services shall rescind its current Immunization Or Testing For COVID-19 Policy,” states a recent draft directive from Copping to AHS that was obtained by Global News.
Alberta’s former chief medical officer of health, Dr. Jim Talbot, questioned the rationale behind the proposed directive.
“There are many of us — speaking as a physician — who believe that if you don’t get immunized, and there is a potential that you can infect the patients in your care, that not only is that unethical, but it is immoral,” Talbot said Monday.
“And so to have the (health) minister override Alberta Health Services’ own decision — I’m in disbelief.”
The draft directive says AHS workers hired after Nov. 30, 2021, must be fully immunized against COVID-19, and that AHS “may introduce temporary testing of workers for COVID-19 as required” to reduce transmission.
Alberta Health Services can choose the “specific terms and conditions” of how to implement the directive, it states, but the health authority must report on its compliance if Copping requests it.
Minister Copping and AHS did not respond to requests for comment.
But at a news conference Tuesday morning, Kenney confirmed the government has asked AHS for options for a policy to replace its vaccination mandate.
“There is no longer any evidence of any significant reduction in the chances of transmission or infection” when health-care workers are vaccinated, he said.
Kenney estimated that 99.8 per cent of Alberta physicians and 98.5 per cent of nurses have submitted proof of vaccination, but added that the province still faces workforce challenges, especially in rural areas and continuing care facilities, where there are sometimes higher numbers of unvaccinated workers — and where it’s more difficult to access rapid antigen tests.
“In some communities, you’ll see to find perhaps 30 per cent of the continuing care, staff in nursing homes, who have not been vaccinated and so now are having to pay out of pocket for antigen tests twice a week,” he said.
“We think that the current policy is not defensible.”
‘That just doesn’t make sense to me’
In August, AHS announced it would require all employees and contracted providers, including workers at AHS subsidiaries such as Capital Care and Alberta Precision Laboratories, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The original deadline for vaccination was Oct. 31 but the health authority ultimately extended that deadline to Dec. 13.
Less than two weeks after the mandate took effect, and as Omicron cases began spiking in Alberta, the provincial government softened its approach.
It ordered AHS to give all non-vaccinated doctors and staff the option of temporary, frequent COVID-19 testing, at the worker’s expense.
In a Dec. 23 news release, the government said the move would allow the return to work of approximately 1,400 full- and part-time staff who had been placed on unpaid leave. The vaccination mandate would be reviewed by the end of March 2022, the release said.
Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger said she believes ending the vaccination mandate, at this stage of the pandemic, would represent “very, very much an outlying stance among health-care organizations — worldwide.”
“I would like to see some transparent disclosure of the evidence behind that decision because we are talking about very vulnerable populations within health care.”
“I am really concerned by it,” Saxinger said. “That just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Talbot said the government’s planned lifting of the vaccination mandate runs contrary to established health practices.
“Measles is under control and hepatitis is under control but we still insist that health-care workers and health-care students get immunized early in their careers to protect themselves and protect the people who are going to be in their care,” Talbot said.
On Saturday, Premier Jason Kenney announced the province was moving to Step 2 of its pandemic reopening plan on Tuesday.
Under this step of the plan, the provincial mask mandate will be lifted except in high-risk settings, such as AHS-operated and contracted facilities, all continuing care facilities and on public transit.
All pandemic restrictions for schools will also be lifted, and all capacity restrictions for all venues, public and personal, will be ended.On Monday, Alberta Health reported 14 more COVID-19 deaths as it released three days’ worth of data. Since the pandemic began, 3,912 people have died.
Over the weekend, the province identified 1,435 new cases of COVID-19. But the total number of active cases dropped by nearly 1,000 and sat at 9,188 Monday.
— with files from Jessika Guse, Global News
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