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Alberta Health Services extends deadline for staff to prove they're vaccinated against COVID-19

Casuals are lagging behind other workers in submitting proof of vaccination, and rural continuing-care sites present "some challenges," AHS said Friday.

AHS has now received more than 1,400 requests for medical or religious exemptions

The policy is designed to protect patients, continuing care residents and staff, Alberta Health Services president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said in a news release Friday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Health Services has extended its deadline for all workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by one month, to Nov. 30.

The original deadline was Oct. 31.

The vaccination requirement applies to all AHS, Alberta Precision Labs, Carewest, CapitalCare and Covenant Health workers, members of medical and midwifery staffs, students, volunteers and anyone acting on their behalf.

In a news release Friday, AHS said 94 per cent of full-time and part-time employees, and 94 per cent of AHS physicians, have complied with the mandatory vaccination program.

But when casual workers are included, the immunization status for all AHS workers falls to about 90 per cent.

That's because only 76 per cent of the 28,000 casual workers have submitted proof of immunization.

The news release said more than 97 per cent of ICU staff are fully immunized.

"We appreciate the pressures our teams face in this fourth wave, especially those on the front lines, and we want to provide every opportunity for our workers, especially our contracted service and continuing care providers, to submit their proof of immunization," AHS said in the release.

AHS has received more than 1,400 requests for medical or religious exemptions to the policy, which was announced in August. The requests will be reviewed before the deadline.

On Tuesday, AHS president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu told a news conference that AHS stands by the policy. She said employees who aren't fully immunized without being granted an accommodation will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence.

Danielle Larivee, vice-president of the United Nurses of Alberta, said she wasn't really surprised by the decision, and was glad it will give AHS more time to implement a plan for those who will be going on unpaid leave.

"I think for most sites it will be OK, but there's a few, smaller rural sites across Alberta where we're certainly getting indications that a substantial number of staff are choosing not to be immunized," Larivee said in an interview Friday. 

She said some staff are worried about what work will look like after the deadline if several people leave their posts. 

"It's just [a] good time for Alberta Health Services to make a plan, to put steps in place to mitigate those kinds of situations, and to let everybody know what's going on," she said. 

In Friday's news release, Yiu noted the policy is designed to protect hospital patients, continuing-care residents and AHS staff. "We have a responsibility to do that," she said in a statement. 

'Some challenges' at rural continuing care sites

The news release said health-care workers have an ethical and professional responsibility to protect others, and that vaccination is a tool in meeting that standard.

"There are some challenges with a small number of continuing care sites, particularly those in rural communities where immunization rates are low," AHS said.

"Extending the deadline will ensure staff at those sites have an opportunity to report their immunization, and for sites to develop contingency plans as needed."

To date, 61 employees have resigned their positions specifically because of the vaccination policy. That includes 31 staffers in clinical roles, 11 of whom are registered nurses.

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