Michel Haddad is physician-in-chief and critical care physician at Bluewater Health in Sarnia, Ont.
Eighty per cent of Canadians aged 12 and above have elected to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect themselves, their families and their communities. Combined with other public health measures, this has led infection rates to drop precipitously, which has led to the much-anticipated reopening of our country. This is good news.
But at the same time, we are witnessing the onset of the fourth COVID-19 wave in parts of the United States, caused by the highly infectious Delta variant. To avoid a similar outcome here – especially with Canada’s southern border set to open to non-essential U.S. travel on Aug. 9 – more of us need to become fully vaccinated, and soon.
The majority of health care workers have been leading the charge in vaccinations. Here at Bluewater Health, 94 per cent of our staff have received at least one dose; 95 per cent of our physicians are fully vaccinated. But elsewhere we have seen evidence of outbreaks in hospitals and long-term care homes caused by unvaccinated staff. And so the time has come for health care organizations to show even bolder leadership by requiring that all staff be vaccinated to protect their patients, colleagues, families and themselves. At the very least they must be tested regularly, so vulnerable patients can be confident that their health care workers will not put them at risk.
Recent support for mandatory vaccination of health care workers has come from professional associations and unions, including the Canadian Nurses Association, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and the Canadian Medical Association. Last month, the University Health Network in Toronto issued a requirement that all employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. Our leadership at Bluewater Health is still designing what our policy will look like, but the expectations will be similar.
This action needs to be made more broadly. The pandemic revealed the closeness with which Canada’s health systems are integrated. In Ontario, hospitals in different regions shared care for ICU patients during the third wave; this has been echoed in many provinces.
Mandatory vaccination policies must include adequate time for health care workers to get their shots, and address potential barriers such as inconvenient locations and hours, along with child care considerations.
A new wave of COVID-19 will affect not only the unvaccinated, but everyone who needs the health care system. Resources are finite, and we need to ensure that hospitals are not overwhelmed by a single disease to the detriment of everyone else. And crucially, we must recall that our young children cannot be vaccinated yet – and so it’s up to us as adults to vaccinate at high rates to keep case counts low, to protect them as much as possible.
As a critical-care specialist who has treated dozens of patients with COVID-19 – with Sarnia-Lambton hit especially hard in the early days of the pandemic – I’ve seen the devastating toll that this illness has on individuals and their families. It has also become clear that mortality is only part of the equation; many survivors are left to deal with disabling illnesses, including lung scarring, physical deconditioning or loss of energy.
Canadians rightly expect those who have witnessed first-hand the catastrophic effects of COVID-19, and who care for our most vulnerable, to be fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the reality, even with Canada among the nations leading the world in vaccination rates. An autumn wave is still a looming threat, and so health care organizations and their workers – and, indeed, all of us – must act swiftly and decisively to keep everyone safe.
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