Hundreds of Alberta health-care workers — on unpaid leave because they’re not immunized against COVID-19 — are expected back on the job within the next two weeks, after the provincial government directed Alberta Health Services to lift its vaccine mandate.
While hospitals, continuing care facilities and other health-care settings will be opening their doors to unimmunized workers once again, AHS says the vast majority of staff are vaccinated and a requirement that all new hires be immunized will remain in place.
Under the mandate, which came into effect in December, approximately 121,000 staff at AHS, Covenant Health and AHS subsidiaries, including Carewest, were required to be fully immunized or to do regular rapid testing.
According to AHS, now that the policy has been lifted, approximately 750 full- and part-time staff have been contacted to return to work.
About a thousand employees opted to participate in the rapid testing program.
“The goal is to return these employees by March 31, although employees can work with their leaders to return sooner or later if needed,” AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email to CBC News.
The policy change came about after AHS committed to the provincial government that it would review the mandate by March 31 and after Premier Jason Kenney publicly called for it to be scrapped.
“As part of that review, we provided government with options for changes, which formed the basis for the new directive,” said Williamson.
“Even with the changes to our policy, we expect a very small percentage of our total active workforce to be unvaccinated.”
AHS says 97.7 per cent of full-time and part-time employees and 99.8 per cent of physicians are now fully immunized, but it did not provide information on the vaccination rate of casual employees.
Staff members “anxious”
Some health-care unions say there is trepidation on the front lines now as these workers return.
Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, calls the situation “challenging.”
“There will be some individuals who are not comfortable with unvaccinated co-workers,” said Smith.
“If the government’s intention was that we would suddenly have a significant improvement in staffing levels … that’s not going to happen. What is going to happen is — I believe some discomfort by some and heightened awareness of the need for consistent and appropriate PPE to protect themselves, their patients and those they love.”
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which had 55,000 members affected by the AHS mandate, has similar worries.
“Many of our members are quite anxious about working alongside people who aren’t vaccinated and who aren’t doing regular testing, but they don’t really have much of a choice,” said AUPE vice-president Bonnie Gostola in a statement.
“Our focus has always been on the safety of our members at work because it directly impacts — especially in the case of health facilities — our ability to keep the patients we care for safe. It is unfortunate that AHS has capitulated to the Government of Alberta’s demands that we pretend the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.”
Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor in the faculties of law and medicine at the University of Calgary, says that with such a vulnerable population in hospitals, a cautious approach is needed.
“If there aren’t public health protections in place already in health-care environments, a new variant could strike quite strongly there and we could see a lot of sick patients and even deaths as a result of that,” she said.
AHS says a requirement that all new hires (after Nov. 30, 2021) be fully vaccinated remains in place.
The AHS spokesperson says patient safety is its top priority.
“All health-care workers, regardless of immunization status, must still follow all current PPE and screening requirements, as well as isolation and quarantine requirements. Fit for work screening is a requirement before staff begin each shift,” Williamson said.