'People will have to make a choice to stay': Long-term care providers on new vaccine mandates for B.C. health-care workers

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the vaccine mandate announced on Monday, which expands on a previously announced vaccination requirement for employees at long-term care homes and assisted living facilities, will take effect on Oct. 26.

"We'll be implementing a new order that makes vaccination against COVID-19 a condition of employment across all health-care facilities in B.C.," Henry said.

"This includes all workers, students, physicians, residents, contractors and volunteers."

The requirement also applies to those working at contracted facilities used by patients, and at home and community care locations. Those who refuse will be put on unpaid leave, Henry said.

As of Monday, employees at long-term care home and assisted living facilities are required to have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but they'll need to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 12 to continue working.

The B.C. Care Providers Association said it supports the new vaccine policy however, hundreds of workers are still refusing to get vaccinated.

"These mandates, as important as they are have had unintended consequences," said Mike Klassen, vice-president of public affairs for the B.C. Care Providers Association.

Klassen told CTV News many workers were planning on leaving to go to work in a hospital, where before Monday's announcement, it was not a requirement to be vaccinated.

Henry addressed those plans at Monday's news conference.

"I just want to make it very clear before we get to Oct. 12, that's not an option for people trying to avoid being immunized," Henry said.

"If they're not vaccinated by Oct. 12, they need to look for another occupation because it won't be with us," said Hendrik Van Ryk, chief operating officer at H&H Total Care Services.

"It's sad. Because there are some really good people and they've been with us the whole way through this pandemic. But we need to do what's right to protect the vulnerable seniors," Van Ryk said.

Van Ryk told CTV News there is a chance he might lose up to 20 per cent of his staff, which would cause a strain on an already struggling system.

"We would be in a very challenging situation and would likely have to go to the health authority and potentially close beds. We would actually have to relocate residents because we wouldn't have the staff to properly care for them," said Van Ryk.

The B.C. Care Providers Association said some operators across the province fear as high as 20 per cent of staff leaving, others less than 10 per cent.

"If we can't even convince our own health-care workers that vaccines are safe, work and are necessary than we are failing as a system," said Laura Tamblyn-Watts, seniors' advocate and CEO of CanAge.

Tamblyn-Watts told CTV News that based on her organization's research, British Columbia as the highest percentage of vaccine hesitant adults in the country, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There haven't been as many attempts to reach different communities, particularly cultural and linguistic communities, to make sure we are meeting all of their concerns and getting the right information out," Tamblyn-Watts said.

Health officials previously cited an increased risk of serious infection and even death among vulnerable residents, whose bodies can be less capable of mounting a strong antibody response even after vaccination, as justification for that policy.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has climbed significantly since then, putting a strain on resources and forcing staff to delay hundreds of non-emergency surgeries. Officials said there are 139 coronavirus patients in intensive care as of Monday, 87 per cent of whom are unvaccinated.

As of Monday, the Ministry of Health said there are 24 active COVID-19 outbreaks in the province. Sixteen in long-term care, and five in assisted living facilities. The rest being in acute facilities in hospitals.

"We are not against choice, but when you work in healthcare, you make a choice to protect those we care for and we have a job to protect," said Van Ryk.

"People will have to make a choice whether or not they want to stay in health care, all through the healthcare system, not just parts of it," said Van Ryk.