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British Columbia’s public-health officials are examining ways to require workers in long-term care homes to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

The province has until now pursued a voluntary vaccination strategy, despite the pandemic’s heavy death toll among long-term care residents. But on Thursday, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said the province is reviewing that approach, as vaccination rates continue to be a concern in some care homes.

“As we have learned how effective the vaccine is both on an individual level, but also how it affects facilities and the rates of transmission in facilities ... yes, we are revising that, we’re looking at the policy.”

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Asked if a mandatory vaccination policy and other measures that would allow employers more authority to keep non-vaccinated workers away from vulnerable residents are on the table, she replied: “Absolutely, we’re looking at all of the options around how do we ensure that residents in long-term care are protected to the fullest extent possible, and that is part of that. It will be ensuring that people who work in long-term care are immunized.”

Care home workers in British Columbia are currently not required to be vaccinated, nor do they need to disclose their vaccination status to their employer. While vaccination policies have been the source of contention for years, care home operators say there is now an urgent need for stronger rules to protect residents as outbreaks in some care homes persist.

Health Ministry officials have said they cannot say how many care home workers are not vaccinated because of staff turnover, but vaccination rates vary between facilities. In March, after an outbreak at the Cottonwoods Care Home in Kelowna, the Interior Health Authority said only 65 per cent of staff at that facility had been vaccinated.

British Columbia’s health unions have long battled the province over flu vaccination policies. B.C. tested the authority of vaccination requirements in an arbitration case brought by the BC Nurses’ Union in 2006. The tribunal upheld a hospital policy that nurses must be vaccinated during an influenza outbreak or take an unpaid leave of absence. But that requirement was set aside in favour of voluntary programs.

Terry Lake, chief executive officer of the BC Care Providers Association, welcomed the new approach. “We are heartened to hear Dr. Henry considering a mandatory vaccination policy for long-term care where B.C.’s most vulnerable citizens live,” Mr. Lake said Thursday. “Families will be relieved to know their loved ones in care will better protected from COVID-19.”

At the end of last month, Ontario announced that staff at long-term care homes would have to show they are vaccinated or provide a proof of why they can’t be. Anyone who refuses to be vaccinated will be required to attend an education session about the benefits of vaccine and the risks of not being vaccinated.

In April, Quebec announced that workers in certain sectors will have to prove they are vaccinated and, if they cannot, they will have to be tested three times a week. Anyone who refuses can be transferred to another position that doesn’t deal with patients. If an alternate position is not available, the worker can be suspended without pay.

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Case counts in British Columbia have plunged in recent weeks as the province’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign kicks into high gear. So far, 72.8 per cent of people 12 and older have received a first dose. The province is expected to move to the next stage of its restart program on Monday, easing pandemic measures on travel and gatherings.

But new data released Thursday shows seniors are still the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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