When the first vaccine against COVID-19 arrived in British Columbia last month, provincial Public Health Officer Bonnie Henry was caught on camera unawares doing a brief happy dance before her briefing. Her clear joy spoke volumes about the relief health officials, health professionals and long-term care residents – along with scores of others – are feeling about the hope for a return to normal life that the vaccines hold.
Not everyone though: The reluctance of some to receive the vaccine has health officials worrying about how to ensure enough British Columbians are willing to get the jab so the vaccine works to its maximum effect. A study by Media Ecosystem Observatory, run by professors at the University of Toronto and at McGill, found two thirds of Canadians are keen to get the vaccine, but another 15 per cent are unwilling and 20 per cent are unsure.
“Those who are unsure need to be convinced of the efficacy and safety of a vaccine, which could be difficult given high levels of distrust and an increasingly loud and chaotic information ecosystem,” write the authors of the Observatory’s study Understanding vaccine hesitancy in Canada: attitudes, beliefs, and the information ecosystem.
“Figuring out how to reach these Canadians is as important as procuring another million doses of a vaccine.”
Some of the hesitancy is coming from a surprising place. Justine Hunter reported this week that a survey conducted in December by SafeCare BC, the workplace safety association for long-term care homes, found only 57 per cent of staff want to get the shots.
The anonymous survey, which had almost 1,500 responses, indicated more than a quarter were uncertain if they would be vaccinated.
“We are experiencing about 50 per cent saying no,” said Hendrik Van Ryk, chief operations officer of H&H Care Homes Ltd., which operates five facilities in B.C. and three in Alberta.
On-site managers are offering daily safety briefings to answer staff questions, but he said he is worried about what will happen if not enough workers are vaccinated.
“We’ll have continued outbreaks if we only have 50-per-cent vaccination. And we can’t, as an employer, tell people, ‘You need to do this.’ "
Employers cannot compel workers to get a vaccine as a condition of employment.
“You’re asking somebody to inject physically into their body a manmade substance. And I don’t believe that any employer has a unilateral right to enforce that kind of action,” labour lawyer Richard Press told Justine in an interview.
Employees who balk at vaccination, however, may face consequences: They might be asked to work outside of direct patient care, to wear additional personal protective equipment, or to take shifts during which physical distancing is easier. They could be asked to take a leave of absence, possibly without pay.
The preferred option, though, is for health experts to work with employees and unions in an effort to address the concerns of those who aren’t refusing, they’re just not comfortable, especially in light of the fact that the vaccine is new.
Miranda Ferrier, president of the Canadian Support Workers Association, which also represents many front-line workers in long-term care, said attitudes are shifting as more workers are vaccinated.
Early in the week, she said, most of her members were ready to refuse the vaccine. “But now there seems to have been a turning of the tide,” she said.
Ms. Ferrier said government and public-health officials should bear some responsibility for vaccine hesitancy after a difficult year for her members: “Personal-care workers are burnt out, they’re exhausted, they don’t know what information to trust.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.