London

Tougher rules for unvaccinated City of London workers could cost up to about $10K a month

City of London workers who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 either because of medical or human rights code reasons will now have to take rapid antigen tests twice a week if they're going into work.

The policy change will see the city pay the testing costs, at $10 for each test twice a week

City of London officials say they're toughening up its COVID-19 vaccine policy, effective immediately. (James Chaarani/CBC)

City of London workers who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 either because of medical or human rights code reasons will now have to take rapid antigen tests twice a week if they're going into work — and the city will be paying for the testing.

The update to the vaccine policy was announced Monday morning and takes effect Tuesday, but at least one city councillor says it's not enough. 

"I am concerned because the Omicron variant is extremely contagious and there is no room for error. I would prefer to see a mandatory vaccination policy," said Ward 5 Coun. Maureen Cassidy, who chairs the city's community and protective services committee, which oversees the fire department. She also sits on the police services board and the health board. 

Changes to the vaccine policy come as the Omicron variant continues to increase cases in the region, and after some firefighters and outside workers said they weren't comfortable working alongside unvaccinated colleagues. The changes come after a consultation with the region's acting medical officer of health, city manager Lynne Livingstone told CBC News. 

For the first time, on Monday, the city revealed that 129 employees have submitted legal documents that exempt them from COVID-19 vaccinations. Last week, city officials said they would not reveal the total number. But Livingstone still won't say which departments those employees with exemptions work in. 

If they're coming into work, the 129 employees will now have to undergo a rapid antigen test at least twice a week. If they test positive, they cannot come to work. 

The test kits will be provided by the city and officials will require proof that an employee has tested positive. The tests will cost about $10 each, according to a spokesperson for the city, which will be paying for it. 

According to the CBC's calculations, the cost will be roughly $10,320 per month if every one of those employees gets tested twice a week for a month. 

Policy 'too cautious' 

Until now, employees could simply sign a document saying they were exempt from the vaccine for medical reasons or reasons under the Ontario Human Rights Code, such as religion or creed, and officials took them at their word. 

Some workers have said they are worried their colleagues have signed exemption attestations under false pretenses. None have formally complained about a colleague, however. 

Cassidy plans to raise concerns about the policy, which she characterized as too cautious, at Tuesday's council meeting. 

City officials won't say how many firefighters are not vaccinated. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Firefighters are the only first responders in London who don't have to have a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment. They are covered under the City of London's vaccine policy, which applies to everyone from sanitation workers and snowplow operators to employees working from home. Paramedics and police officers, who are covered under different vaccine policies, do have to be vaccinated or are sent home without pay. 

"Police, fire, EMS, they all respond to medical emergencies, to motor vehicle accidents, to alarms in a home, whether it's a gas leak or a fire — you're entering people's homes. Maybe there should be a separate policy for first responders?" Cassidy said.

"I have concerns because, who is in that home? Are they on immune-suppression drugs? Are they undergoing cancer treatment? We don't know those things but we do have a duty to ensure that people are safe." 

Firefighters, who spend their shifts in close contact with their colleagues, have different health and safety protocols in place that should ensure people are safe, Livingstone said. 

There are also worries that some have claimed exemptions under false pretenses, Cassidy said. 

"If that's true, if people are making false claims about a human rights or religious exemption, what's to stop these same people from getting their double-vaxxed sister-in-law to take the antigen test for them and then submitting the results and saying it was them? It's a concern. How can we ensure that people are going to be honest with their testing results?" Cassidy said. 

PPE still required

But Livingstone said she has faith in employees, and there are checks and balances to ensure test results aren't faked. 

"We are asking for documentation that indicates the date, the time, and that it's that employees test," she said. "We've also put in place a third party to help employees if they have questions about the test and that third party is available to us to do random reviews, a kind of quality-assurance approach of how employees are undertaking the test." 

Only the tests given by the City of London will be accepted. "There's a very clear set of steps that have to be followed in the submission of the tests," Livingstone said. 

London is also ensuring employees use required personal protective equipment, including eyewear, in city vehicles such as fire trucks, garbage trucks and snow plows. 

The city isn't making boosters mandatory, but officials strongly recommend that all employees get their third shots as soon as possible, a spokesperson said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.

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