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A nurse attends to a patient in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital in Surrey, B.C., Friday, June 4, 2021. The average cost of treating a COVID-19 patient who needs intensive care in Canada is estimated at over $50,000 compared with $8,400 for someone who's had a heart attack, a new report says. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan HaywardJONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

One of British Columbia’s largest health unions, embroiled in an internal dispute over its opposition to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations in the health care sector, is facing a leadership crisis.

Just days after the BC Nurses’ Union, with 48,000 members, came out against the province’s mandatory vaccine order, the union announced the abrupt departure of its top official.

“Christine Sorensen has resigned as president of the BCNU for personal reasons and to pursue other opportunities,” a statement published on the union’s website announced Monday night. Ms. Sorensen has not been publicly visible for the past week as the union mounted a fight against the province’s mandatory vaccine order, which comes into effect on Oct. 26.

“We cannot support any order which will serve to remove even a single nurse or other health care worker from the health care system at a time of severe crisis,” the union said in a statement on Sept. 13. Ms. Sorensen was not quoted in the statement and did not respond to media requests.

Comments on this announcement on the union’s public Facebook page highlighted the divisions. The people posting could not be reached for comment.

“Our patients deserve to be looked after by vaccinated healthcare professionals. The damage is done thx to BCNU, my social media is on fire with my friends/colleagues angry, upset, ashamed,” nurse Joanna MacKenzie wrote in the public comments responding to the union’s post.

“As nurses I think we have an ethical responsibility to uphold the right of patients and individuals to make choices based on what’s best for them,” Dorothy Creech commented.

Two days later, the union issued a “clarification” in response to a backlash from its own membership. “We are reaching out today in response to members that have contacted the union to express their confusion, disagreement or concerns.” The union acknowledged that most of its membership is already vaccinated, but warned that the policy could create “desperate staffing challenges in worksites where staffing is already stretched extremely thin.” It warned that thousands of nurses could be sidelined by the policy.

On Tuesday, public-health officials announced they are now shuffling critically ill patients across British Columbia, as low vaccination rates in the north have overloaded hospitals there.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry pleaded with people to help overburdened health care workers by getting vaccinated. “Our teams are tired, and there’s a moral distress that we feel when we are seeing people who are suffering from a preventable illness,” she said during a briefing on Tuesday. “Part of that strain is health care workers who are not yet vaccinated.” She said there were more than 100 unvaccinated health care workers off work last week because of COVID-19.

Health Minister Adrian Dix blamed those who choose not to be vaccinated for driving the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in acute care. “Our health care workers continue to deliver the very best care possible to every patient, but it’s not simply a matter of continuing to ask them to do more. We cannot keep asking them to compensate for the devastating consequences created when people make the decision not to get vaccinated.”

Under current labour contracts, nurses and other unionized health care workers can be required to be immunized as a condition of employment. The province has announced that all health care workers who work in settings with patients will be required to have the COVID-19 vaccine, except in rare cases that justify a medical exemption. However, the details of just which health care workers and health care settings are to be included in the mandatory requirement are still being drafted.

The nurses’ union said this month that 20 per cent of its members are not vaccinated for COVID-19. By comparison, just 13 per cent of the general population of eligible British Columbians remains unvaccinated.

The Canadian Nurses Association supports mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers, but the BCNU is not a member of the national organization.

Union officials did not respond to inquiries about the circumstances of Ms. Sorensen’s departure.

Ms. Sorensen served as the union’s president beginning in 2018, taking over after Gayle Duteil was forced out in a messy fight that, after two rounds of costly arbitration and a court battle, ended with its governing council declaring her ineligible to remain in office.

Ms. Duteil is now one of the outspoken advocates for mandatory vaccinations. “Nurses deserve a safe workplace for themselves, their families and their patients,” she wrote in a Sept. 16 posting on Twitter.

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