Lift BC nurses’ vaccine mandates to ease staffing shortfalls, say critics

Written By Rob Shaw

“It doesn’t matter what either one of us believes, the fact is you need to fix the problem and deliver service to the people in B.C.”

–Michael Goetz

Should B.C. nurses who refuse to get vaccinated for COVID-19 still be banned from working in the province’s short-staffed healthcare facilities?

It’s a question being mulled over internally within the B.C. government right now, as the province develops its fall vaccine campaign for the flu and COVID-19. The implications could be significant, especially for hospitals in B.C.’s interior and north, which have been especially hard-hit by hospital curtailments caused by a shortage of nurses and doctors.

“Most people I talk to do agree it’s time to lift the mandates,” said Merritt mayor Michael Goetz, whose Nicola Valley Hospital has been shut down as many as 13 times since January due to shortages of doctors and nurses.

“Most people I talk to do agree it’s time to lift the mandates.”

Michael Goetz

“It has nothing to do with your decision on how you want to live your life, it has to do with we have a resource ready to come back to work. And being the only province left in Canada still on this stand, you have to have a closer look at what you are doing.”

Mayors in other rural communities have been equally outspoken about the issue, saying their local hospitals and facilities could be stabilized with even the return of one or two unvaccinated nurses, preventing people in rural areas from having to drive hours to another facility for care.

BC, the last hold out

B.C. is the only province left in Canada that is refusing to let nurses go back to work if they are unvaccinated. The government initially said more than 2,500 “healthcare workers” were fired as part of its vaccine mandate — including 900 in Interior Health alone. Some later got vaccinated or quit their professions. 

The BC Nurses’ Union has 682 members still fighting the province through the grievance process for being fired due to vaccination status.

Currently, the vaccination mandate for nurses rests in a health order from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“It’s a provincial health order at the moment, and I don’t really see it changing.”

Adrian Dix

There are roughly three options available to the government on the issue: Keep the order in place under Dr. Henry, move her order into law through an regulation passed by Premier David Eby’s cabinet, or drop the requirement entirely.

Health Minister Adrian Dix, a staunch supporter of the vaccine mandate, said he wants to hold the line.

“It’s a provincial health order at the moment, and I don’t really see it changing,” Dix said in an interview.

“People sometimes have this debate with health human resources, but B.C., which has the mandate, has seen a dramatic increase in this period in the number of nurses. And Alberta, which doesn’t, has seen a decline.”

Dix said he’d leave it up to Dr. Henry to explain the science around the vaccination requirement, and whether unvaccinated nurses are a greater risk of spreading COVID-19 to patients in hospitals and long term care homes at this stage of the post-pandemic when so many people have already either had COVID-19 or been vaccinated.

Dr. Henry was unavailable for an interview.

In a statement, she said that “given the uncertainties that continue, we have no plans to change the requirements now.

“This remains an important initiative to protect the most at-risk people in hospitals and our healthcare system, as well as protecting health-care workers themselves,” read the statement.

Early vaccine continuing immunity questioned

The mandatory vaccination requirement has been in place since 2021. In order to qualify, nurses need to have their first two vaccinations. But almost three years later, with some British Columbians on their fourth or fifth shot, it’s not clear whether holding nurses to an initial two doses is even still sufficient to accomplish immunity against COVID-19’s ever-changing variants.

The government lifted the vaccination requirement for public sector workers in April.

BC Green leader Sonia Fursteanu said whatever benefits remain of the vaccination requirement for nurses at this point, they need to be explicitly stated by the province and measured against the harm to the healthcare system of not having enough staff.

“What’s the evidence?”

Sonia Furstenau

“What’s the evidence that this is reducing risk and harm to people using the healthcare system?” she asked. “Because that should be the question being asked.

“We have incredible staffing shortages across the board in healthcare,” added Furstenau. “It’s really impacting rural communities, and those staffing shortages are causing harm.”

Opposition BC United has been calling for the government to repeal the nurse vaccination mandate for months.

“It’s insane we are still stuck in these mandates, that we have people that are stuck at home that we need to be in hospitals and supporting our healthcare system,” said Dan Davies, BC United’s MLA for Peace River North.

“It’s absolutely crazy, and makes no sense,” he said.

BC Nurses Union walks thin line

The BC Nurses’ Union continues to walk a careful line on the issue, both supporting the nurses who’ve filed grievances over refusing vaccines, while continuing to advocate that nurses get vaccinated. in April, the BC Labour Relations Board dismissed an application brought forward by several nurses against the nurses’ union related to the mandates.

“The systemic nurse shortage is resulting in untenable conditions in emergency rooms and other departments in hospitals across B.C.,” the union said in a statement.

“In some rural communities, losing just a single nurse or health-care worker from the system during this time of crisis will be disastrous. We expect the government and health employers in B.C. to avoid any measures that will add to the depleted number of qualified nurses providing patient care in this province.”

“In some rural communities, losing just a single nurse … from the system during this time of crisis will be disastrous.”

BC Nurses Union

Dix said he continues to defend Dr. Henry’s position when talking to rural community leaders, including mayor Goetz.

“It’s true British Columbia is the only province to do it, to have a vaccine mandate for workers, but the evidence is it was the right decision,” he said.

Goetz said it’s possible to support vaccines, masks, science and Dr. Henry, and still believe that after three years, with COVID-19 normalized for many, that it’s time to lift the requirement for nurses.

“What it boils down to is the fact it doesn’t matter what either one of us believes, the fact is you need to fix the problem and deliver service to the people in B.C. to make sure their hospitals run,” he said.

“It boils down to you need to do the best you can, and seriously consider lifting the mandates. We’re going into year four, how long do we go on like this?”