After weeks of insisting Quebec would go ahead and impose a vaccination mandate for health-care workers and suspend those who don’t comply without pay, the province’s health minister, Christian Dubé, has backtracked and is now giving them an extra month to get adequately vaccinated.
Health-care workers now have until Nov. 15 to get the necessary shots. The original deadline was this Friday.
Currently, 93 per cent of Quebec health-care workers are fully vaccinated, but that still leaves almost 22,000 facing suspension because they have had only a single dose or are unvaccinated. Dubé said the health system wouldn’t be able to handle losing so much staff.
He said the decision to push back the vaccination deadline for health-care workers was “difficult,” but one that was necessary to avoid “hitting a wall” when it came to providing health-care services to Quebecers.
“I have the responsibility to protect the health-care network of Quebecers,” Dubé said during a news conference on Wednesday. “The risk right now is too high, and it would be irresponsible to roll the dice with the health of Quebecers.”
In the meantime, starting Monday, staff who are not adequately vaccinated will have to undergo a minimum of three COVID-19 screening tests per week. This measure was already in force in the public network, but will also apply in the private facilities.
Nurses who are not adequately vaccinated by Nov. 15 will not be eligible for the financial bonuses of up to $18,000 as part of Quebec’s plan to entice and retain nursing staff to fix the staffing crisis in the health-care network. They will only receive their premiums if they get double vaccinated within the next 30 days.
All new hires in the health network will have to be adequately vaccinated, Dubé added.
“This decision can be very frustrating for health-care workers that are already vaccinated. It can also be frustrating, shocking, for users in the network that want a safe environment,” Dubé said.
“We want to apply mandatory vaccinations for health-care workers, but not at the expense of our ability to treat citizens.”
Dubé’s tone was noticeably different from the one he had about 24 hours ago, when he doubled down on the Friday deadline, saying there would be “no change” on the government’s plan to enforce the mandatory vaccine mandate.
‘Best solution,’ Dubé says
During Wednesday’s news conference, alongside Quebec’s associate deputy health minister Dr. Lucie Opatrny, Dubé said “under the circumstances, postponing the 30-day deadline is the best solution to ensure the continuity of services and not to add more pressure on our network, and more particularly on its staff.”
Opatrny said if the Friday deadline was maintained, there would have been a “considerable reduction” in health care in Quebec. Thirty-five of the province’s 470 operating rooms and some 600 hospital beds in the province would have had to be closed.
As it stands, 80 operating rooms are already closed due to the staffing shortage. Some long-term care homes (CHSLDs) would have also been forced to close beds, she said.
Opatrny added the number of unvaccinated workers is not spread out equally across the province and across departments, noting an example where one lab had four out of six technicians who were unvaccinated. She said workers would have to have been shifted to accommodate the loss of workers in critical care services.
Several professional orders representing health-care workers, including the province’s orders of nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, licensed practical nurses and the college of physicians, had said they would suspend the licences of members who aren’t adequately vaccinated against COVID-19 by Friday.
Dubé suggested Wednesday those deadlines would also be extended to give workers several more weeks to get vaccinated before having their licences suspended.
Dubé had a message for unvaccinated health-care workers ahead of the new deadline: “I hope you will take advantage of this reprieve to get yourself vaccinated.
“Do it for yourself and your loved ones, but also for your colleagues who need you.”
Unions applaud decision
The Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), the largest nurses’ union in the province, said it was pleased with the postponement, but said there are still problems to solve.
“We are avoiding chaos in the short term, but we are not out of the woods. The network remains extremely fragile,” said Isabelle Groulx, a respiratory therapist and vice-president of the FIQ, which represents 76,000 nurses.
The FIQ is demanding strong leadership from the province, including concrete initiatives that would ban the use of forced overtime, which the union has long said is the primary reason nurses are leaving the public sector in droves.
The Fédération de la Santé du Québec (FSQ-CSQ), which represents more than 5,000 nurses, respiratory therapists and nursing assistants, said Quebec made the “responsible decision” Wednesday.
For weeks, unions have expressed concern for vaccinated workers in the system who would be forced to shoulder the extra burden left by the suspended workers.