Hamilton

Niagara Health puts mandatory vaccination policy on hold, citing 'intensity' of Omicron

The hospital system said the impact of the COVID-19 variant, which has led to a surge in cases and hospitalizations across the country, was not anticipated when its vaccination policy was put in place in October.

CEO says network 'committed to a fully vaccinated' staff but must focus on response

Niagara Health has announced its pausing its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for staff. (Supplied by Google Maps)

Niagara Health has paused its program making vaccination mandatory for staff, citing the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and the "intensity of the fifth wave."

The hospital system said the impact of the variant, which has led to a surge in cases and hospitalizations across the country, was not anticipated when its vaccination policy was put in place in October.

"We remain committed to a fully vaccinated workforce at our hospital, and we will proceed with the implementation at a later time to be determined," said CEO and president Lynn Guerriero in a media release that pointed to an "urgent need to focus on our response" to the virus.

Ontario reported a pandemic high of 2,472 people with COVID-19 in hospital on Friday, up from 1,144 at the same time last week — a 116 per cent jump.

There are also 338 patients with COVID-19 in ICUs, compared to 205 last Friday.

Postponing its mandatory vaccination program is the second major step Niagara Health has taken this week amid spiking infections and staffing struggles.

The hospital network announced on Tuesday that it was shutting down its urgent care centre in Fort Erie to redeploy doctors and nurses to emergency departments.

"This wave of the pandemic is beyond anything we have experienced," Guerriero said in a written statement at the time. "We have exhausted all options."

Niagara Health said on Thursday that none of its employees have lost their jobs because of the mandatory vaccine program, unlike at other hospitals which have already moved forward with their own vaccination policies.

That said, four workers at a long-term care home in Welland that is run by the network were fired in line with a ministry directive requiring all staff in that type of setting have shots against COVID-19.

'Nothing can be off the table,' says union

Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, which represents some health-care workers at Niagara Health, pointed to the provincial government and said the shortage of workers is the result of burnout and working conditions that have broken down during the pandemic.

She called on Premier Doug Ford to provide supports for those who work at hospitals.

"We have to do everything we can to bring back and retain as many staff as possible. In this crisis, nothing can be off the table," wrote Stewart in a statement.

"Our research tells us that for every worker who might have left because of a vaccine mandate, there are 20 more who left because of abhorrent working conditions."

Staff and doctors at Niagara Health will continue to undergo screening before every shift and infection prevention guidelines are in place, said the hospital.

"Those who are unvaccinated will continue to be required to participate in regular antigen testing," it added.

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