Possibility of unvaccinated health-care workers underscores ‘crisis’: expert

As Ontario’s beleaguered health-care system faces critical staffing shortages, particularly among registered nurses, some hospitals are looking at the possibility of hiring unvaccinated workers to boost care capacity.

And the decision to modify policies to bring in unvaccinated workers speaks to the larger issue at hand around health-care settings failing to attract and retain workers, Ivy Bourgeault, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Health Labour Policy, told CTV’s Your Morning Tuesday.

“Because of the crisis situation we’re in, many people are grasping at straws in order to keep their hospitals open,” she said.

“This is the downward spiral that we talk about. There are very high levels of workload, that is leading to very high levels of burnout,” she said.

Attrition can involve health-care workers exiting the field entirely or simply moving to fewer hours to cope with burnout, she said.

In a memo obtained by CTV News last week, 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.

In the memo, Dobson referred to “significant health human resource challenges” that have led to closures of Emergency Departments at the SBGHC’s hospitals in Kincardine, Walkerton, Chesley, and Durham.

Across Ontario and multiple other provinces including B.C., Alberta and Manitoba, a surge of respiratory syncytial virus, a flu epidemic, and COVID-19 has overwhelmed pediatric ICUs and led to not only shut-downs but increased ER wait times.

Health-care networks in most provinces have axed vaccination requirements for its staff. Nova Scotia and B.C. are the remaining jurisdictions where the provincial governments mandate vaccinations for health-care workers. In Ontario, while the province dropped its mandate for health-care workers in March, most hospitals continue to enforce their own mandates.

The SBGHC is the only hospital network in Ontario that has signalled a possible move to opening its doors to unvaccinated workers. In response to a CTV report published Dec.10 on the memo, the Ontario Hospital Association sent an email to leadership staff that emphasized the importance of vaccines. It continues to recommend that hospitals implement mandatory vaccination.

Even the consideration of allowing unvaccinated workers back into the health-care system during a pandemic should raise alarms that employee retention issues have reached a critical stage, said Bourgeault.

“What exacerbates that issue…as issues of poor pay, feeling that you aren’t recognized for the work that you do, not being given rights in terms of collective bargaining,” she said.

As well, as wait times increase and patients become frustrated, those feelings end up being taken out on health-care workers, she said.

While staffing concerns were an issue prior to the pandemic, worker burnout, and concerns about pay and treatment have only worsened since 2020, she said.

A study by Statistics Canada published in June found that 92 per cent of nurses reported feeling more stressed at work during the period between September 2021 and November 2021.

Nurses were also more likely to report that they intended on changing or leaving their current job in the next three years. Job vacancies from the fourth quarter of 2021 indicated that there were 126,000 positions open in the health-care and social assistance sectors, the report stated.

Competitive compensation and workloads that will allow nurses to provide the care they are trained to do and want to provide will help, Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, told CTV National News last week.

“We have a really vicious situation here that we have to turn around,” said Bourgeault.


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