As hospitals across Ontario battle a surge in respiratory illnesses, ER closures, and long-wait times, one hospital is considering hiring unvaccinated health-care workers, who say they’re eager to help ease staffing shortages.
In a memo obtained by CTV News, Mandy Dobson, Interim Director of Clinical Services at South Bruce Grey Health Centre (SBGHC), said the health network is conducting a review of its COVID-19 vaccination policy.
The health network, which runs four rural hospitals in Kincardine, Walkerton, Chesley, and Durham, said it “continues to experience significant health human resource challenges, which have resulted in Emergency Department closures at all four (hospitals).”\
It also noted that it had COVID-19 positive health-care workers working due to “critical staffing needs.”
A survey was attached to the memo, gauging staff reaction to any potential changes to its policy to allow unvaccinated workers to be hired.
The memo follows a tense community meeting, in Chesley, Ont., on Oct. 18 when more than 400 residents packed into the town hall, claiming they fear for their health and safety, after their local ER was shut down for two months because of a severe shortage of nurses.
Among those who spoke to the panel of local politicians and health officials was Anne Laxton, a registered nurse, independently verified by CTV News. She explained she had applied to work at the hospital system, but was rejected because did not get the COVID-19 vaccines for personal reasons.
But she told the audience she is ready and willing to work, with full PPE. “I would love to get a job. Hire me,” Laxton told CTV News.
A video posted on Facebook shows Laxton speaking to the audience, with voices in the crowd calling out “Hire her, hire her.” Confusing the matter is that the hospital has unvaccinated staff on duty because it did not fire those who declined vaccination.
While health-care networks in most provinces abandoned vaccine mandates for workers earlier this year, B.C. Nova Scotia and Ontario remain the three that continue to enforce COVID-19 vaccinations.
But with hospitals struggling to provide services, SBGHC appears the first in Ontario to publicly reconsider dropping the policy.
When asked for further information on the discussions underway, Meghan Legge, manager of communications for SBGHC, told CTV News in an email that the hospital “does not have a comment at this time.”
In response to the story published by CTV News, an internal memo was sent to hospital leadership staff on Dec.10 from the Ontario Hospital Association that emphasized the use of vaccines.
The email obtained by CTV News says the news coverage may “trigger inquiries” about the vaccination policy for staff members.
“As you are aware, vaccination mandates for health care workers for a wide range of infectious diseases have been in place for several decades,” the email states. “The OHA (Ontario Hospital Association) believes that COVID-19 vaccination policies within Ontario’s hospitals should remain in place given that they offer the highest level of protection for patients and health care workers. In addition, as COVID-related vaccines continue to evolve, maintaining existing policies will ensure that the hospital sector is effectively prepared for the future.”
WHAT SOME UNVACCINATED NURSES ARE SAYING
CTV News spoke to four nurses, who are unvaccinated and say they were either fired or resigned because of the vaccine mandates. They spoke about their distress watching the current staffing shortages from the sidelines.
“I feel sad for the patients. I feel sad for the staff that (are) left,” says Lori Turnbull. The 58-year-old worked as a nurse in orthopedic surgery and stroke rehabilitation and fired a year ago from a hospital in London, Ont. after a 30-year career.
She insisted that she is “not anti-vaccine” and has all the other recommended vaccinations, such as those for measles, mumps and polio.
Turnbull cites personal reasons for declining the COVID-19 shots, adding they were prepared to be tested regularly and would continue to wear full PPE at work.
They acknowledge that they made a choice not to be vaccinated but feel the terminations are “harsh.” Some told CTV News they were let go without severance for their “noncompliance.” Some retired. Others now work as waitresses and even in dairy farming.
“I’m doing a lot of volunteer work,” said Turnbull. “I’m not using my nursing skills for that.”
“I feel like I’m invisible and I don’t even exist in terms of potential for, a hospital, here,” said Isabelle, who asked CTV News not to use her last name. A long-time nurse, she now stocks shelves four days a week in a grocery store.
Erin Estabrooks says she was also let go from her job as a registered nurse at St Joseph’s Hospital in London, Ont. in October last year. But, she says, she would return if the rules change.
However, in an email to CTV News, St. Joseph’s communications officer Dahlia Reich said that the hospital’s policy on COVID-19 immunization “remains unchanged,” adding that “vaccination remains a critical component of a safe health care environment.”
Three of the nurses said they would return to the front lines if allowed. “In a heartbeat, I’d love to (be back),” said Isabelle.
At least two of the nurses said they are considering taking jobs in provinces where COVID-19 vaccine mandates are no longer an issue, and where they say the hourly pay for nurses tops $90 an hour, almost double that in Ontario.
“I’m in the process to get my license to go and work and it pays a lot,” said Isabelle, who admitted she would prefer to work in Ontario. Turnbull, however, says she won’t leave the province but hopes people listen to her sidelined colleagues.
“We’re not going to solve the nursing shortage that has been many years in the making, but we certainly could help. At least if you have adequate staffing, you know you’re not gonna burn everybody out, Turnbull said.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION ACROSS CANADA?
In Canada, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and the Yukon rehired unvaccinated health-care workers earlier this year. Quebec introduced, but never enforced, a vaccine mandate. Ontario ended vaccine mandates, including those for hospitals, in March this year.
However, the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) continues to recommend the continuation of mandatory vaccination policies among the province’s 140 hospitals. It has jurisdiction to do so, say provincial officials.
“As set out under the Public Hospitals Act, hospital administrators are responsible for the day-to-day management of their hospitals, including policies related to human resources,” Bill Campbell, media relations coordinator for the Ontario Ministry of Health, told CTV News in an emailed statement.
SBGHC may be an outlier, pointing out in its memo to staff that “hospitals are now at liberty to implement their own vaccination policies.”
However, the Ontario Hospital association publicly holds to its vaccine mandate directive for its members. The OHA did not respond to questions about this directive from CTV News.
In a previous statement to CTV News Toronto in August this year, when asked about lifting the province’s vaccine mandates, Anthony Dale, the OHA president and CEO, said: “Health-care workers deserve to feel safe and to deliver patient care in an environment that requires the highest level of protection available against COVID-19.”
“That’s not what will save the system,” insists Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario. “What will save the system is very competitive compensation, workloads that allow nurses to provide the care that they want and know to provide, and fast-tracking more seats for RNs, for nurse practitioners,” she said.
VARYING VIEWS FROM EXPERTS
Mandatory vaccinations were initially introduced and enforced because they were believed to prevent infection and transmission, critical in a setting where sick vulnerable patients were getting medical care.
However, there have been many outbreaks among vaccinated health staff in hospitals across the country, with studies showing that while vaccination reduces viral load and reduces severe illness and death, it does not stop COVID infections or transmission. Research also shows the protection, based on antibodies, wanes after three months.
These findings are among the arguments made by some experts who question why the mandate is still being enforced.
“I don’t see a logic to it,” says Rafael Gomez, director of the Centre for industrial relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto. “Why not allow these people back?”
“The difference between you know, having one or two more people means, you know, keeping an eight-hour shift right around so that people can be seen and their medical needs attended to,” he added.
But others suspect there is pressure not to make changes.
“Other hospitals will be mindful of how it looks to now allow people back, or hire new unvaxxed (people), when they were very heavy-handed in forcing them out. None of them wants to blink first,” says Lisa Bildy, a human rights lawyer, based in London, Ont.
“I don’t think Ontario hospitals should do anything just because hospitals in other provinces are doing it,” Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist and assistant professor in health sciences at Western University in London told CTV News in an email. “If the health and safety of patients are our hospitals’ top priority, then it’s not unreasonable to expect those caring for our patients to adhere to policies that best protect their health and safety.”
However, Dr. Stephen Shafran, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Alberta, told CTV News that while it is “irresponsible” for nurses who deal directly with patients not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, PPE is a way of allowing them to continue to work on the front lines.
“This is exactly what many Canadian hospitals have done for years during flu season with nurses who have refused to take influenza vaccine,” he said. “Having them work wearing PPE is probably a better choice than the alternative – insufficient numbers of health-care providers (HCPs) leading to reduced patient services and potential harms from too few HCPs per patients.”
He also pointed out that many unvaccinated health-care workers have already likely had COVID-19 and therefore would have some degree of immunity.