COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for Waterloo-Wellington hospital staff starting next month

Waterloo-Wellington hospitals will mandate COVID-19 vaccines for staff, physicians, students, volunteers and contractors starting next month.

Staff who aren’t fully vaccinated will be placed on leave without pay, and will have a window until early-November to follow the vaccine policy.

As of Oct. 12, everyone working at Cambridge Memorial Hospital, Grand River Hospital, Groves Memorial Community Hospital, Guelph General Hospital, Homewood Health Centre, St. Mary’s General Hospital North Wellington Health Care Alliance, which includes hospitals in Palmerston and Mount Forest, will need to be fully vaccinated against the disease.

“Protecting the health and safety of our patients and staff has always been our priority,” Lee Fairclough, president of St. Mary’s General Hospital and hospital lead for COVID response, said in a joint news release from local area hospitals. “Vaccines are an important tool in the COVID fight and in our response to the highly transmissible Delta variant—something that we have witnessed the impact of firsthand. We are pleased that vaccination rates are high within our hospitals and community and are very grateful to everyone who has chosen to become fully vaccinated. It is our responsibility to implement every safety measure possible to protect our patients and teams.”

Ontario’s chief medical health officer said high-risk settings like hospitals needed to have COVID-19 vaccine policies in place Sept. 7. In August, local hospitals announced new staff and volunteers would need to be fully vaccinated. The policy now includes current staff.

“Our response throughout the pandemic has been a collaborative approach across our community as we continue to protect our patients and our staff,” said Patrick Gaskin, president and CEO of Cambridge Memorial Hospital. “Our new joint vaccination policies are simply one more important step forward that we are taking to achieve this, together.”

Unvaccinated staff must attend a mandatory education session and undergo antigen testing twice a week as of Sept. 7. They’ll need a negative test before coming to any hospital site.

Walk-in vaccine appointments for first and second doses are available at clinics, pharmacies and primary care offices in Waterloo Region and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph.

Medical or legislated exemptions to the vaccine policy must be submitted before Oct. 12.

"The majority of our staff have embraced the vaccine and our patients and the loved ones of our patients expect it from us," said Steve Street, Groves Memorial Hospital president, adding it was not a difficult decision.

He said fewer than 50 of the hospital's 650 staff members are either unvaccinated or have an unknown vaccination status.

"I think some are undecided and I think some may work at multiple organizations, so I think it may be giving them the time and opportunity to ensure that their employers have their updated information and our program and our policy allows that time to occur," Street said.

The Ontario Nurses Association did not immediately make anyone available for an interview.

CUPE, the union representing thousands of healthcare professionals in southern Ontario, addressed the new vaccine mandates on Wednesday.

"All health workers who can be vaccinated, should get vaccinated," a CUPE spokesperson said in an email. "Vaccination programs that are the most effective, according to the World Health Organization, are voluntary and not coercive."

The union said workers who cannot be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons must be protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code and be provided accommodations. They suggest workers who are not vaccinated have an employer-provided opportunity to speak with a medical professional about vaccines.

"If following that discussion, a worker who has no protected right to refuse vaccination still chooses not to do so, her individual right to choose may come into conflict with the collective rights to well-being of her co-workers and their families and the people in her care," the statement continued.

CUPE suggested using rapid antigen tests and symptom screening for those who are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated.

"Discipline and harassment are not appropriate for people who refuse vaccination," the union said.