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People wait to be screened before entering Little Mountain Place, a long-term care home in Vancouver, on Jan. 3, 2021.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

An Abbotsford long-term care home has sent seven staff home sick with COVID-19 in the past two weeks, five of whom had not been vaccinated.

Since the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in British Columbia last December, the provincial government put long-term care residents and staff at the front of the line for access because of the high risk to seniors.

But care home workers are 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 new variants of the virus fuel COVID-19 case rates around the province.

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“I feel like we are dodging bullets,” said Karen Biggs, chief executive officer of Menno Place in Abbotsford, a 700-bed complex with 675 staff.

Concerns were raised early in the vaccination rollout that large numbers of workers in long-term care homes were hesitant to get the jab. That prompted a multilevel campaign by public-health officials, educators and the unions representing care workers to encourage voluntary vaccination.

But Ms. Biggs does not know how many of her employees have received the vaccine. “We’ve encouraged, and encouraged, and encouraged. But we have no way of knowing how many have been vaccinated, and we can’t mandate it. And we can’t mandate that they tell us if they have had a vaccine, which I think is crazy.”

She said the seven staff who tested positive agreed to disclose their vaccination status, although they were not required to do so. “We’re so concerned about having another outbreak, especially with all the variants that are out there,” she said.

The B.C. Ministry of Health says 90 per cent of residents and staff, together, in long-term care have been vaccinated, but it does not provide separate figures for staff.

‘Communication issues’ spark chase for vaccinations in B.C.’s COVID hot spots

This is the month when Canada breaks the back of the pandemic

Earlier this year, the province set a target to have 80 per cent of staff at the facilities inoculated. The province now says it has exceeded its targets, with 40,226 staff in long-term care having received their first dose, and 26,396 having received their booster shot as of April 15. But because of turnover, it is unclear how many staff currently working in care homes have not been vaccinated.

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.

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Terry Lake, CEO of the BC Care Providers Association, said operators of care homes are struggling with the province’s policy, and have now obtained a legal opinion suggesting that vaccination could be considered a requirement of the job, at least for new hires.

“It’s clear that you still have unvaccinated staff bringing in the virus,” Mr. Lake said Monday. In general, Canadian employers cannot compel workers to be vaccinated, but he said the lawyer retained by the association suggests that an employer could try to make the case that vaccination for COVID-19 could be deemed a requirement of the job given the urgent nature of the pandemic.

“If you’re working with the most vulnerable in the middle of a pandemic and being vaccinated against COVID – unless there’s a physical or religious reason why you can’t take the vaccine – it could be considered a requirement,” he said. He said a broader debate is required on the issue, but at least employers should know if their workers are not vaccinated.

“I think the public, and co-workers, and certainly the families of those in care, have a right to know what the level of vaccination is in any particular home,” he said. “This is the most vulnerable setting possible.”

British Columbia 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.

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