Group of Alberta firefighters threaten AHS with lawsuit over vaccine mandate

A group of Alberta first responders is threatening to take Alberta Health Services to court over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for frontline health-care workers, arguing that it’s unconstitutional.

'It is our opinion that this vaccine mandate is unconstitutional,' says letter to AHS president

Infectious disease experts say messaging emphasizing the importance of third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine is key in light of latest trends. And, they say, the province may need to consider expanding eligibility for fourth doses before the fall. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A group of Alberta first responders is threatening to take Alberta Health Services to court over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for frontline health-care workers, arguing that it's unconstitutional.

At the end of August, AHS announced that it would require all employees and contracted health-care providers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of October. 

AHS employees unable to be vaccinated due to a medical reason or a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act will be "reasonably accommodated," said a release at the time.

Now a group of firefighters, paramedics and other workers calling itself Fight For The Frontline has hired an Airdrie law firm to make its case that the vaccine mandate violates Canada's constitution. 

Tim Moen, a firefighter-paramedic working outside of Edmonton and a spokesperson for the group, told CBC News they are fighting the policy on behalf of fellow frontline workers who have medical conditions or other reasons for not getting the shot.

"I see many of my colleagues being threatened with suspension and even job loss," he said.

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The group argues that AHS should afford them the option of being regularly tested for COVID-19, as some other public employees have been.

"It is our opinion that this vaccine mandate is unconstitutional under sections 2 and 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that it cannot be justified under section 1 as a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society," said a letter to AHS president Dr. Verna Yiu from lawyer Derek From.

The letter goes on to say that the AHS mandate is a disproportionate response to COVID-19, "which, after 20 months of being detected in Alberta, has an infection fatality rate of approximately 0.15 per cent."

Even during a pandemic, From says, legal rights must be "appropriately balanced and accommodated" with government policies. 

AHS said in an emailed statement to CBC News that officials are reaching out to better understand who the group represented by From is comprised of, and to further discuss the policy with them. AHS noted that it does not directly employ firefighters but that some paramedic-firefighters do work for contracted service providers for AHS.

"The mandatory immunization policy is an important tool to ensure the safety of our employees, and our patients," said AHS in the email.

List of demands

From's letter to Yiu also asserts that the vaccine mandate is unfair because he says none of the COVID-19 vaccines have been proven safe and they all have associated health risks.

"None of the currently approved COVID-19 vaccines protect anyone other than the individual who has been vaccinated, as can be demonstrated by the fact that COVID-19 cases are unrelated to levels of vaccination," From's letter also alleges.

Yet there's also overwhelming evidence that these vaccines are saving countless lives while carrying far, far lower risks than the disease they're designed to prevent.

Researchers in various countries have been tracking potential adverse reactions while vaccinations have ramped up. So far, there have been more than 17,000 reports of adverse events post-vaccination in Canada, totalling just 0.031 per cent of all doses administered. 

The percentage of eligible Albertans fully vaccinated is 75.6 as of Oct. 14 — almost equal to Nunavut, which has the lowest rate at 75.5 per cent — compared to the national rate of 82 per cent and Ontario's rate of 82.5 per cent.

At the same time, Alberta leads the country by far in active case counts, with 14,218 compared to 4,136 in Ontario, a province with more than three times the population.

From's letter to Yiu also argues that the vaccine mandate is unfair since no exemption is given to "individuals who have acquired natural immunity because of a previous COVID-19 infection."

In fact, the relative strength of post-infection natural immunity versus the protection given by vaccines is still being studied by scientists.

A study cited in a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August said survivors who never got vaccinated had a significantly higher risk of reinfection than those who were fully vaccinated.

The letter to AHS president Yiu concludes with a series of demands — including that AHS provide a rapid testing option for workers not wanting to be vaccinated; that unvaccinated employees be entitled to severance if they are dismissed; and that AHS compensate people who suffer "vaccine injuries" in complying with the mandate.

The group says if the demands aren't met it will move ahead with a constitutional court challenge. 

With files from Elissa Carpenter and Lauren Pelley