Workplaces in various sectors across the province continue to grapple with COVID vaccine policies and enforcement with some opting to mandate the jab for all employees.
Companies in certain industries, such as travel, trucking and long-term care, face government-imposed regulations, whereas workplaces in other sectors are tasked with navigating the issue on their own. The province instructed hospitals to develop vaccine policies last August and not long after, local health officials urged Muskoka businesses and organizations to follow suit and develop their own policies. Some have decided to require vaccines for all employees except those with valid medical exemptions while others have opted to allow for regular testing in place of vaccination.
“By establishing a COVID-19 vaccination policy, along with continuing to implement all other public health measures as outlined in my amended letter of instruction, employers will help to protect their workers and their clients from COVID-19 and contribute to the overall control of the pandemic in Simcoe Muskoka,” said Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU), in a letter to businesses.
The provincial government is requiring public service workers to get vaccinated or undergo a COVID-19 vaccination educational session and submit to regular testing. On a national level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in August that all federal public servants would be required to get the vaccine. The federal government also announced their intention to mandate COVID vaccination in all federally regulated workplaces on Dec. 7 with enforcement expected early this year.
The requirement would apply to industries including banking, telecommunications, postal services and more, though some companies have already enacted their own vaccine policies. RBC, TD Bank, Scotiabank, BMO and CIBC all require vaccination for onsite employees, though some offer regular testing options in lieu of vaccination.
Telecom giants Rogers and Telus have given employees a choice between vaccination and regular testing while Bell has taken a stricter approach, requiring all staff members to be vaccinated. Caroline Audet, senior manager of media relations for Bell, said they believe vaccination is the best way forward to protect their staff, customers and communities.
“As part of a full vaccination policy, we will be taking measures up to and including unpaid leave of absence and termination,” Audet said. “We are currently working with impacted team members and these discussions are ongoing.”
Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, has also voiced their support for mandatory vaccination policies. Dr. Gardner of the SMDHU sent a letter to local businesses and organizations in September, urging them to develop and enforce a vaccination policy for their staff. The health unit also provided a set of recommendations to help workplaces determine the risk of transmission and in turn develop an appropriate policy.
Local businesses mandating employee vaccination include Deerhurst Resort and Muskoka Lakes Farm & Winery while others like Windermere House are simply encouraging their staff to get vaccinated and providing other safety measures such as on-site self-testing. On the municipal level, the District of Muskoka as well as all area municipalities have given staff the option to confirm their vaccination or submit to regular testing, with most requiring mandatory education sessions for the unvaccinated as well.
Organizations like the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) have consistently called for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for healthcare workers. Others including the Ontario Nurses’ Association opposed the idea, citing concerns about existing shortages amongst nurses and other healthcare professionals.
Though vaccines are required for long-term care workers, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced in November that COVID vaccinations would not be mandatory for all healthcare workers. Instead, the province instructed hospitals and other healthcare providers to create and enforce employee vaccination policies within the guidelines of Directive 6.
Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital and Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre in Barrie have both enacted mandatory vaccination policies for their staff. Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare (MAHC), the organization that operates the hospitals in Huntsville and Bracebridge, has chosen not to mandate COVID vaccinations for employees. Instead, MAHC’s policy requires unvaccinated and partially vaccinated staff to submit to weekly rapid antigen testing.
“At MAHC, more than 90% of our team is vaccinated and we know that 100% may never be achieved based on the allowed exemptions,” wrote Natalie Bubela, MAHC’s president and CEO at the time, in a September blog post. “Nevertheless, we encourage the public to get vaccinated to increase a person’s immunity to the virus. While vaccinated people may still contract and transmit COVID, we know it has been scientifically proven that the effects of the virus are minimized.”
With cases on the rise due to the Omicron variant, vaccine mandates outside of work settings could be on the way, said federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos in a press conference last week. It’s ultimately up to the provinces to decide whether or not to enact mandatory vaccination policies, but with hospital capacity stretched thin, he said it’s an option provincial officials should consider.
“What we see now is that our healthcare system in Canada is fragile, our people are tired,” Duclos said. “And the only way that we know to get through COVID-19, this variant and any future variant, is through vaccination.”