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Chartwell, Extendicare, Responsive Group, Revera and Sienna said that any new hires, placement students and temporary staff will have to prove they have had both COVID-19 shots

Mario Beauregard/The Canadian Press

A coalition of major for-profit Canadian nursing and retirement home chains will soon require all staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Staff who have not received their two doses by Oct. 12 will be placed on unpaid leaves of absence and one chain said those who refuse to get jabbed will risk losing their jobs. The group of large operators of long-term care and assisted living facilities – Chartwell, Extendicare, Responsive Group, Revera and Sienna – also said in a joint news release Thursday that any new hires, placement students and temporary staff will also have to prove they have had both shots.

Nursing and retirement homes across Canada have seen thousands of their residents die from outbreaks through the pandemic. Canada had the worst record for COVID-19 fatalities in these homes among other wealthy countries during the first wave.

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“Frontline staff at each organization have demonstrated an enthusiastic response to our voluntary vaccination programs. We thank them for their commitment, but we need to do more,” the joint statement said. “As rates of infection once again increase in communities across the country, unvaccinated staff are more likely to bring the virus to work.”

The mandate is similar to – and has the same deadline as – British Columbia’s public-health order requiring long-term care and assisted living workers to prove they have had their second dose of vaccine. If they cannot prove a medical exemption to getting vaccinated they will not be allowed to keep working in these facilities, according to the order announced earlier this month.

The companies’ new mandate goes above Ontario’s rules for these facilities, which states those staff without a medical reason for avoiding vaccination will be subject to regular testing to prove they are not contagious. Unimmunized workers must also participate in a special class explaining the science behind the vaccines, the benefits of getting a jab, its possible side effects and the risks of choosing not to get vaccinated.

In Quebec, two days of parliamentary committee hearings into a coming requirement for health care workers there to get fully vaccinated began on Thursday.

Sharon Ranalli, vice-president of marketing and communications for Chartwell’s chain of 180 facilities across the country, said the vast majority of its 16,000 employees have had at least one dose of the vaccine, but those rates still don’t offer their clients enough protection as more infectious variants emerge and as fall approaches. She said in an e-mailed statement that 92 per cent and 86 per cent of staff in the company’s long-term care homes and retirement complexes, respectively, have had at least one dose.

“Chartwell employees who refuse vaccinations will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence and, depending on the circumstances, continued refusal to comply with our vaccination policy will result in their employment ending,” she said.

A spokesperson for Sienna stated that nearly 90 per cent of its work force has had at least one dose and 84 per cent are fully vaccinated, so it does not expect this new mandate to affect staffing levels.

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Laura Gallant, a spokesperson for Extendicare, said her company also does not expect this new rule to impact their staffing levels as more than 90 per cent of its 15,000 workers in the sector have had their first dose of a vaccine. Asked if the company has the legal basis to force its employees to get vaccinated, she replied that Extendicare’s focus is on protecting residents and staff at its facilities from the new variants.

“This is a critical moment in the pandemic,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

New vaccine mandates are untested in Canadian courts, but B.C. won the authority to require flu vaccinations 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.

The virus has been highly lethal in Ontario, killing 3,793 nursing home residents to date, according to official data. An independent provincial commission that examined the impact of COVID-19 on nursing homes in the province said for-profit companies, which own two-thirds of the province’s 626 long-term care homes, should no longer be in the business of caring for residents. The for-profit sector should continue building facilities, it said, but should leave operations up to organizations that are mission-driven, not profit-driven.

B.C.’s Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie, an independent watchdog who reports to the provincial Health Ministry, praised the coalition of companies Thursday for creating their own rules in the absence of a national mandate or provincial standards to protect this vulnerable sector from the virus.

“Clearly it is not planned for every province, so they’ve stepped up and they’ve spoken with one voice,” she said.

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