Vaccines won't be mandatory for existing Quebec health-care workers, only new hires

In an about-face, facing a drastic service reduction, Quebec has decided that health-care workers already employed won't be forced to get a COVID-19 vaccine, the province's health minister said Wednesday.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said that the province is facing 500 service reductions or reorganizations if it goes ahead with its planned Nov. 15 deadline for staff vaccines.

Instead of the previous plan, now only new hires will be required to be vaccinated, he said, though the province will try hard to replace those workers with vaccinated ones over time.

For now, those without vaccines will be subjected to a "rigorous" testing system, with three tests a week, Dubé said. Those who refuse the tests will be suspended without pay.

There will also be no COVID-19 bonuses or retention bonuses for the unvaccinated.

"To deprive ourselves of 8,000 people [in health staff ranks] will have devastating consequences for our network," Dubé said. 

Of those 8,000 unvaccinated staff, 5,000 have direct contact with patients, including 1,200 nurses and 1,300 orderlies, many working in nursing homes, Dubé said.

However, the province hopes to change their jobs to move them away from the most vulnerable patients.

FACING THREAT, THOUSANDS WERE VACCINATED

The overall vaccine statistics have also improved a lot since the province first came up with its ultimatum in late August, telling staff they'd be suspended without pay if they didn't get a vaccine by the deadline.

The vaccination rate among public health-care staff has gone from 93 per cent to 97 per cent, said Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda. The stats for the private network aren't clear.

Wednesday's news comes after the province already pushed its original deadline for staff to get vaccinated, Oct. 15, back by a month.

Just since that postponement, about 15,000 more people have been vaccinated, authorities said.

Dubé said he's still very unhappy that 3 per cent of health-care staffers won't be vaccinated, but said 97 per cent coverage is "exceptional," also praising Quebecers as a whole for their vaccination rate.

"For many Quebecers, myself included, this remains incomprehensible that health workers won't get vaccinated," he said, adding that the province has "done everything" to convince the remaining 3 per cent.

"I think some people will be disappointed by the decision," he said.

"I want to remind all Quebecers that they've gotten vaccinated in very big numbers... that meant we could make this decision today."

Currently, workers in the public system who aren't vaccinated but have direct contact with patients must be tested for COVID-19 three times a week before their shifts.

WORRIES ABOUT NURSING HOMES

Doing a complete reorganization of staff, for example moving all unvaccinated staff out of cancer or neonatal units or out of all nursing homes, is not realistic right now, said pandemic management director Daniel Paré. However, the goal is to do that without disrupting care too severely, he said.

He said the province will be extremely strict with the testing requirement, which must be "systematic."

Other than the unvaccinated, who in Quebec are currently 19 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus than the unvaccinated, seniors still face the highest risk from COVID-19 because their immune systems are much weaker than younger people's, meaning their bodies are less able to develop strong antibodies from the vaccine.

When asked if he's comfortable with the idea of his own mother being in a nursing home with these new rules -- and his mother does, in fact, live in a care home -- Dubé said yes, he considers the risk low.

"There are very few" unvaccinated staff overall, he said. There's also the testing requirement.

Third, there's now much better protective equipment protective in care homes now, he said, which "wasn't the case in the first wave."

Fourth, seniors will be getting booster shots to help protect their immunity, he said.

In a final point, he said he expects things still to change over the coming months.

"I would say that the moment the CEOs have the ability to replace an unvaccinated [staff member] with a vaccinated [one], they'll do it."

LAWYER FOR UNVAXXED NURSES 'HAPPY'

Natalia Manole, the Montreal lawyer who challenged the vaccine mandate in court, says she's "happy" about the news.

"I think that the government basically did not have a choice,” she told CTV News on Wednesday.

“I am surprised that this situation was not actually examined before the decree was made... How come just now, just a few days before it's supposed to be applied, they were able to basically access the information that led them to backtrack on this intention?”

At the end of October, Manole presented a legal challenge before Quebec Superior Court contesting the validity of the government decree and asking for an injunction against it.

The injunction argues that routine testing is a better alternative to curbing the spread of COVID-19 than mandatory vaccination or suspension.

In response, Superior Court Justice Michel Yergeau agreed to render his decision on Nov. 15, regardless of what the government decides. That plan is still in place, despite the government backtracking on the mandate.

“This is a legal file that's before the judge and politics is not the same as the court, the judiciary,” Manole said.

“The fact that the government decided not to apply this vaccination mandate anymore for healthcare workers, does not mean that that the decree was valid in the first place. So, the court has to pronounce itself on the validity of the decree in the first place.” 

--With files from CTV's Rachel Lau and The Canadian Press

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