1,650 AHS staff put on unpaid leave for breaching vaccine mandate while others offered rapid test option

Alberta Heath Services' vaccine mandate went into effect Monday and while the vast majority of employees have adhered to the policy, 1,650 full-and part-time AHS staff not fully immunized have been put on unpaid leave.

175 staff at Alberta healthcare facilities with low vaccine uptake allowed to use rapid test kits

Alberta Health Services vaccine mandate went into effect on Monday, after two delays and a last minute directive by the province to introduce rapid testing in places with low compliance. (AHS)

Alberta Heath Services' vaccine mandate went into effect Monday and while the vast majority of employees have adhered to the policy, 1,650 full-and part-time AHS staff not fully immunized have been put on unpaid leave.

The mandatory vaccination policy applies to all AHS and Covenant Health staff as well as workers at AHS subsidiaries, including Carewest, Capital Care and Alberta Precision Laboratories. 

According to the health authority's website, AHS and its subsidiaries have a combined workforce of 121,000 people with around 97 per cent of their full- and part-time staff fully immunized.

Despite the hundreds of people put on leave, a total of 175 staff at healthcare facilities where there has been a low vaccine uptake have been offered a rapid test option.

In late-November, the provincial government directed AHS to allow the temporary rapid testing option due to concerns care could be impacted at sites where compliance is low.

AHS won't say which facilities, for privacy reasons, but did say 19 programs or departments within a number of hospitals and continuing care homes, as well as nine emergency medical service stations, will offer rapid tests.

Most are in the central, north and south health zones.

    Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor in the faculty of law and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, says the government's messaging to have a rapid test option undercuts the the vaccine mandate.

    "I do worry that there may be pushback from some of the sites where there isn't a rapid testing option, and they may argue that there should be an across-the-board policy for all sites."

    She adds that having some employees accommodated and others not may also lead to tensions in the workplace.

    "You had some people who were opposed to getting vaccinated, but reluctantly did so, and then others who held out a little bit longer and were rewarded with a rapid testing option."

    Grievances filed against AHS

    AHS implementing the rapid test option has led to grievances being filed by both the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE).

    In a release on Dec. 10, UNA  said the initial immunization policy, which required all employees to be fully vaccinated, was appropriate, while the revised one sets different rules for some employees.

    AUPE vice-president Bonnie Gostola says their members are quite upset that AHS chose to not apply the mandate to all work sites.

    "When they made the shift to accommodate sites that had low vaccination rates, we feel this is very unfair application of their policy."

    She says if the rapid testing option had been applied across the province instead of just select sites, the number of those using it would have been much higher.

    "We have members who as of yesterday were basically told not to bother, to go home, or just not to bother coming to work because they haven't shown the proof of their vaccination status."

    She says some members have filed personal grievances against AHS for denying them the rapid test option.

    "It's going to be an ongoing issue because there was an issue before COVID hit and now we've got people being sent home from small rural sites." 

    AHS did state in an email that unvaccinated employees on leave will be able to return to work if they provide proof of full immunization.

    Medical, religious exemptions

    AHS says more than 11,000 employees have requested exemptions to the mandatory immunization policy — with 251 of those being medical accommodations.

    However only 40 per cent of those have been granted.

    "We don't know the exact basis for the medical exemptions, but we do know that generally speaking, there have been efforts put in place to draw those exemptions quite narrowly," said Hardcastle.

    She adds there are very few medical conditions for which the COVID 19 vaccination is contraindicated.

    "For many serious health conditions, you're better off with the vaccine than with the chance of getting COVID," she said.

    AHS has also received 883 religious accommodation requests, but only a few of those have been granted.

    With files from Jennifer Lee


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