Quebec has pushed back the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for workers in the health-care network to Nov. 15 amid concerns about an urgent staffing shortage.
Health Minister Christian Dubé announced the 30-day delay Wednesday as the initial deadline for mandatory vaccination loomed, with thousands of employees facing suspension without pay.
Citing the pressure on the health network amid the weight of the pandemic, Dubé said it would be irresponsible to remove more workers right now. The risk of labour shortages is “too high” for a system that is already short-staffed, he added.
“It is essential to us to protect our network and our patients,” he said, describing it is a “difficult decision” to postpone the mandate.
In the meantime, the province’s Health Ministry said in a statement all unvaccinated health-care workers in both the public and private sector will be tested at least three times a week starting next Monday.
Those who don’t have both doses will also forego their pandemic-related bonuses, according to Dubé. This includes the financial incentive ranging from $12,000 to $18,000 for nurses who work or are willing to take on a full-time schedule in the public system under the province’s plan to boost staffing.
The Quebec government had previously stood firm on the Oct. 15 deadline for health workers in both the private and public sector to be fully immunized against COVID-19 — despite calls from unions and opposition parties to push back the date to avoid a breakdown in services.
As recently as Tuesday, the health minister maintained he wasn’t going to budge on the date, saying there was a contingency plan in the works to reduce the impact of suspensions, which involved a “reorganization” of services.
In Quebec, professional orders representing nurses and pharmacists announced earlier this week they would suspend the licences of unvaccinated members. On Tuesday, the orders that regulate licensed practical nurses and respiratory therapists also said members who are not fully vaccinated by Friday would not be able to work.
When asked about the about the delay, Premier François Legault defended the province’s decision Wednesday.
“I think when you weigh the disadvantages, it was the responsible decision to make,” he told reporters.
The president of the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux with the CSN, which represents about 110,000 workers in health, social and daycare services, wasn’t surprised by the government’s about face given the chronic labour shortage.
“I think they had no choice,” Jeff Begley said. “I think it was the only decision they could make.”
If the government had gone through with the mandate this Friday, it would put an additional strain on the health workers who are vaccinated and are already “stretched to the limit,” he added.
“We’ve definitely avoided a bigger crisis in delaying and hopefully they put that month to good use to find a way forward.”
The majority of workers in the health-care system are fully immunized but Dubé said about 22,000 have not received both doses of the vaccine as of Wednesday. Of them, more than 14,000 have yet to get the first shot.
While Dubé said he wants to give “a last chance to the unvaccinated” by postponing the mandate, one employee in the health network says the month-long delay won’t change her mind.
Maria Alcina Lopes works as an administrative assistant at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. She is not comfortable with being vaccinated and told Global News she does not plan on getting the vaccine.
“I feel the government is being a bully and the more they push and bully and manipulate, the less I trust,” she said.
If workers are obligated to get the vaccine next month, she said she will “look for a job elsewhere.”
—with files from The Canadian Press
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