A new provincial mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for long-term care facilities doesn’t mean staffers have to be vaccinated.
Current employees can’t legally be forced to be vaccinated for the deadly virus, but it could become a condition employee for new workers at LTCs, said Corey Johnson, head of strategic communications at Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare.
But he said the biggest impediment to having staffers vaccinated are company policies that don’t allow workers, often precariously employed, to be paid while being given the jab.
The province however wants protection in place to protect long-term care homes and as of July 1, Ontario’s mandatory vaccine policy takes effect. That means long-term care homes are required to have COVID-19 immunization policies for staff.
Staff members will be required to do one of three things: show their vaccination dates; provide a medical reason for not getting vaccinated; or attend an educational program on the risks associated with not being vaccinated and the benefits of vaccination.
Johnson said healthcare organizations cannot fire staff if they refuse the vaccine even after the educational program.
“Once they go through the education, they do have the choice not to take it,” he said. “This is where there is a lot of misconception. It doesn’t mean that staff members have to be vaccinated. It means that these long-term care homes have to have a policy around vaccines.”
Johnson said if there is a reason a staff member didn’t want to take it, the nursing home cannot discipline them.
“They are still allowed to work there,” he said. But a home could require new hires to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.
“You can have it as a condition of employment if they were to hire new staff. But if they’re already working there, you couldn’t discipline them or let them go for the choice of not being vaccinated,” Johnson said.
But he said the biggest issue hasn’t been staff not wanting to take the vaccine, but that the vaccine is not readily accessible.
“Staff members don’t have the support to get vaccinated,” he said. “It no secret that some of these employees work paycheque to paycheque.”
Johnson says staff can’t risk taking time off work to get vaccinated and some may not be able to afford transportation to get the shot.
“They just can’t risk taking those one or two days off to do that,” he said. “And even then with the paid sick day program, it’s through WSIB, and it’s very slow so it’s not guaranteed and there is a lot of people work.”
Ontario said last month vaccinations in long-term care homes had shown great success, although there have been 3,781 LTC residents who died of COVID-19 as of June 13.
“Widespread vaccination within long-term care homes is the best way to protect residents, staff and their families,” said Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton. “We want to build on the success of our long-term care vaccination campaign to date.
“That’s why we’re leading the way with new measures to promote full immunization among long-term care staff,” she said.
Samantha Peck, executive director of Family Councils Ontario, agreed staff members cannot be forced into the vaccine.
“You’ve got families and residents who want to know that the people providing hands-on care are vaccinated,” she said. “You’ve also got staff who, like all Ontarians, have bodily autonomy. And so we can’t vaccinate people against their will. That would be contrary not only to law but our sense of ethics and morality as a society.”
Peck says proper consent needs to be made, but stresses these staff members are in healthcare professions.
She said the mandatory vaccination policy recognizes those competing interests, that staff do have autonomy.
“And we need to consent and not be under duress, but also recognizing that they’re working in a healthcare setting and that they’re caring for medically fragile, older adults,” Peck said.
She says vaccination policies will most likely be based on the successful model developed at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in vaccinating staff members, who at first did not want to get vaccinated.
“Sunnybrook did see an increase in vaccination levels among staff when they introduced this policy,” Peck said. “If we look at factors that enable (an) uptake of vaccinations, it’s things like making sure that staff get paid for the time that they go to get vaccinated.”
Peck suggests having vaccine clinics brought to long-term care homes for employees would help individuals make better-informed decisions when it comes from peers.
“Another important piece is that peer-to-peer connection,” she said. “That if you know if someone who you work with, who you have a trusting relationship with, is the one who says to you, ‘would you like this? It’s important, and here’s why people are more likely to agree’ because they trust the messenger.”
Attached is a timeline outline of some major events for long-term care homes during the pandemic: