VANCOUVER — Amid growing concerns about the highly contagious Delta variant, the B.C. government has decided to make vaccination against COVID-19 mandatory for workers in long-term care homes and assisted living facilities.
The policy was announced Thursday by Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who noted there has been a resurgence in COVID-19 outbreaks in the province’s long-term care system in recent weeks.
“We now have eight outbreaks introduced by unvaccinated people,” Henry said. “And we’ve seen spread both to residents and staff, causing illness but also disruption to the lives of people in long-term care.”
Officials have faced growing calls to mandate vaccines for care home workers, including from B.C.’s seniors’ advocate, but the government spent weeks insisting that requiring unvaccinated employees to use additional personal protective equipment and undergo regular testing would suffice.
Henry said that approach has proven ineffective in the face of COVID-19 variants of concern.
“We have now seen with the transmission of the new variants that we need extra protection in this highly risky situation,” the provincial health officer said.
“Even when residents’ immunization is high, as it is across the board in facilities in this province, we have seen transmission from unvaccinated staff.”
The new vaccination mandate is being implemented by a pending provincial health order, and will require every employee in long-term care homes and assisted living facilities to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 12.
Until then, Henry said the province will be working with facilities and individual staff members to ensure “every person has access to vaccination and has their questions answered.”
Officials acknowledged that some workers may be unable to receive the vaccine for legitimate medical reasons, and said the government will work with those individuals, their employers and unions.
But Henry was clear that for everyone else, getting vaccine protection against COVID-19 will be “a condition of employment.” The mandate will also apply to volunteers and personal service workers whose duties require them to enter care homes.
Minister Dix noted that more than 40,000 people working in long-term care, and a “significant number” working in assisted living, have already chosen to take the vaccine.
The impacts have been noticeable. Prior to the spread of the Delta variant, officials credited widespread vaccination among care home residents for helping bring the number of outbreaks from about 50 down to zero.
Even now, Dix said the outbreaks that have been emerging “are not qualitatively the same” as earlier outbreaks. But the response required to contain the spread of the disease, which includes shutting down facilities to family visitors, remains “incredibly disruptive and painful,” the minister said.
Four of the latest outbreaks have been in the Interior Health region, where an alarming surge in cases has prompted the return of a local mask mandate, the closure of bars and nightclubs, and a number of other tough measures in the Central Okanagan.
So far, the Brookhaven Care Centre in West Kelowna has recorded 23 cases of COVID-19 involving five residents and 18 staff. Nelson Jubilee Manor has only recorded four cases, but has already suffered one death.
Henry said it would be unfair to place restrictions on people who have not had equal access to the vaccines, but that B.C. now has adequate supplies and availability for those interested.
“We need to make the point to many people that now is the time to get immunized because it is going to have an impact on your ability to do some of those things that you may want to do,” she said, using sports games and indoor concerts as examples.
“If you choose not to be immunized, then you don’t necessarily have the right to go into a higher risk environment with a bunch of people who have been immunized.”
Last month, B.C.’s human rights commissioner argued that businesses and service providers can also require people to provide proof of vaccination in some circumstances.
Kasari Govender’s guidance stressed that such policies should only be implemented if “less intrusive means of preventing COVID-19 transmission are inadequate for the setting and if due consideration is given to the human rights of everyone involved.”
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