Edmonton

Premier calls for end to vaccine mandate for Alberta Health Services staff

The provincial government has directed Alberta Health Services to review its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for staff — a policy Premier Jason Kenney describes as indefensible, but one which health critics say continues to provide important protection to vulnerable patients.

Current AHS policy 'not defensible,' Jason Kenney says

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. (AHS)

Premier Jason Kenney says a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health workers should be scrapped, but critics say the policy continues to provide important protection for vulnerable patients.

The province has directed Alberta Health Services (AHS) to "come back with options" to lift its vaccination mandate for staff because there is no longer a "compelling rationale" for it, Kenney said during a news conference Tuesday in Red Deer.

With the waning effectiveness of vaccines and the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, immunized workers are "effectively just as likely" to transmit COVID-19 as unvaccinated workers, he said.

We can't just be bloody-minded about this when a policy lever that we pulled is no longer useful.- Premier Jason Kenney

"We saw vaccines having a powerful effect … but that has changed and our approach to the disease has to change," Kenney told reporters.

"We can't just be bloody-minded about this when a policy lever that we pulled is no longer useful."

The mandatory vaccination policy, which went into effect on Dec. 13, applies to all AHS and Covenant Health staff, as well as workers at AHS subsidiaries including Carewest, Capital Care and Alberta Precision Laboratories — about 121,000 people.

An AHS spokesperson declined to comment on ongoing discussions around the provincial directive, referring questions to government officials.

In a policy document outlining the mandate to its staff, AHS said it had committed to reviewing the policy before the end of March.

Kenney should recognize that vaccine mandates may still be justified in high-risk settings long after they are no longer needed for the wider population, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta.

Vaccines do reduce the transmissibility of Omicron, Saxinger said.

"We're talking about health-care workers working with some of the most vulnerable patients in the province," she said.

The provincial directive also ignores the possibility that future variants may have increased transmissibility, she said.

"This may not be the last pandemic wave."

Kenney declined to confirm a timeline but said that as the province has now lifted its vaccine mandates, AHS should follow suit. 

He said AHS could instead adopt a universal rapid testing strategy to ensure periodic testing for all employees, regardless of their vaccination status.

"But again, doing that, using rapid antigen testing for people who are asymptomatic doesn't make a lot of scientific sense," Kenney said.

While most AHS staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19, low immunization rates at some sites, especially rural continuing-care homes and hospitals, have strained staffing levels, he said.

Around 98 per cent of nurses and doctors have submitted proof of vaccination, he noted.

"Given that vaccinated health-care workers are pretty much as likely to transmit as unvaccinated and we're facing workforce challenges, we think that the current policy is not defensible," Kenney said.

In November, before the mandate came into force, the province directed AHS to allow temporary rapid testing to unvaccinated workers in a bid to ensure staffing would be maintained at sites where compliance was low. Initially, 175 staff at health-care facilities were offered the rapid test option.

But in late December, as Omicron cases began to spike, the province changed tack. The testing option was made available to any unvaccinated worker who wanted back on the job.

Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor in the faculty of law and the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said the province has adopted a "heavy-handed" approach to AHS vaccine mandates. 

"I don't think there is any reason for the province to intervene and dictate," she said.

"We seem to have a province here that is hell bent to be as open as possible."

AHS officials are best equipped to set vaccination policies, Hardcastle said.

"There are potential future variants, it's likely we'll see those and they may not behave in the same way," she said. "It's hard to believe that this decision was based on the science and not the politics."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. She loves helping people tell their stories on issues ranging from health care to the courts. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Wallis has a bachelor of journalism (honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

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