British Columbia

'Rare exceptions' to B.C.'s vaccine mandate will be allowed for workers in assisted living, long-term care

People with legitimate medical conditions could be exempt from the vaccine mandate, says the Ministry of Health. Employers and unions will determine how they can safely care for patients in those rare circumstances.

People with legitimate medical conditions could be exempt from the vaccine mandate, says Ministry of Health

Long-term care home workers are now required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 12. However, the province says there could be exemptions for those with legitmate medical conditions. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It didn't take long for Katherine Klassen to realize something was wrong after she got her first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

She got the jab in January, along with her long-term care co-workers, who were prioritized under B.C.'s Immunization Plan.

"We were all really, really excited," she told CBC News.

But five minutes later, she noticed a rash start spreading from her hand up to her arm.

"Then my throat and my chest started to get itchy and tight, and then my eyes started to get itchy and watery," she said.

Klassen was rushed to hospital and administered multiple shots of epinephrine to treat her adverse reaction to Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine. She says doctors are still trying to figure out exactly what element of the vaccine caused it.

Until then, she's been medically advised not to receive a vaccine dose. Now she fears her vaccination status could put her career in jeopardy.

On Aug. 12, health officials announced that a new public health order will make vaccination mandatory and is a condition of employment for those working in long-term care and assisted living facilities. They will need to be fully vaccinated by Oct.12. In the meantime, unvaccinated staff will be tested regularly for the virus.

"I don't want to change my career, this is what I want to do. And I want to protect my residents," said Klassen, who works in a facility based in Williams Lake.

Fortunately for Klassen, she might now qualify for an exemption.

B.C. says there will be 'exceptions'

The vaccine mandate was imposed amid soaring COVID-19 cases in B.C. driven largely by a confluence of the delta variant and stalling immunizations.

As of Monday, there were active 5,090 COVID-19 cases in B.C. along with 10 outbreaks in long-term care and assisted living facilities.

"We have seen transmission from unvaccinated staff, and it has reinforced the need for protection," Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Thursday. "We have now seen with the transmission of the new variants that we need extra protection in this highly risky situation."

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says B.C. is unlikely to return to the mass restrictions that were in place from November 2020-May 2021 even if cases continue to rise. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

But on Monday, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Health said there will be exemptions for those workers who can prove they can't take the vaccine.

However, those exceptions will likely be few and far between.

"There are legitimate medical reasons why a small number of people cannot be vaccinated," said a spokesperson in an e-mailed statement. "In those rare exceptions, employers will work with those staff, their union (if applicable), to determine how to ensure safe patient care is provided."

Precautions could include requiring unvaccinated staff members to wear a mask at work and be tested for COVID-19 regularly, using rapid tests, the spokesperson said.

The B.C. Hospital Employees Union, which represents more than 50,000 health care workers across B.C., including more than 20,000 workers in long-term care and assisted living, said it will advocate for its members.

"Employers are legally obligated to accommodate workers who cannot be vaccinated for bona fide medical reasons, or on other grounds protected under human rights legislation like religious beliefs," wrote spokesperson Mike Old in a statement.

A woman passes by an Interior Health COVID-19 mobile vaccination unit on Bernard Avenue, Kelowna, B.C., last week. (Winston Szeto/CBC)

Klassen is hopeful her circumstances will yield an exemption, while calling on those who can safely take the vaccine to book an appointment.

"Please get vaccinated," she said.

The province is continuing to encourage residents to become fully immunized.

British Columbians 12 and over who have not yet been immunized can register in three ways:

The vaccine is also available at walk-in clinics throughout the province.

In an effort to curb further virus spread, the province has reduced the amount of time between first and second vaccine doses for B.C. residents.

People are now being invited to get their second dose 28 days after their first dose, instead of the previous wait time of 49 days.