Manitoba

Pockets exist across all 5 Manitoba health regions with unvaccinated front-line workers, says health minister

Staff are on standby for redeployment and contingency plans are in place should Manitoba see a significant number of health-care workers barred from their jobs as a new testing mandate for the unvaccinated kicks in next week.

Province readies for health-care staff shortages as mandatory testing deadline for the unvaccinated approaches

As of Monday, any unvaccinated health-care and personal-care home workers in Manitoba must submit to testing every 48 hours. If they refuse that, they will be put on an unpaid leave of absence. (GagliardiPhotogra/Shutterstock)

Staff are on standby for redeployment and contingency plans are in place should Manitoba see a significant number of health-care workers barred from their jobs as a new vaccine deadline arrives next week.

Health and Seniors Care Minister Audrey Gordon said Friday there are still "pockets all across the five [health] regions" in the province with front-line workers who are not vaccinated against COVID-19.

In three days, any unvaccinated health-care and personal-care home workers must submit to testing every 48 hours. If they refuse that, they will be put on an unpaid leave of absence.

Shared Health, the organization that co-ordinates health-care service in the province, said of the 42,000 health-care professionals affected by the new requirements, 31,508 had completed the vaccination status disclosure process as of Friday.

Of those, 29,707 indicated they had been vaccinated, 26,220 of which have been validated through verification processes. Shared Health said 1,801 workers so far have been identified as unvaccinated and will have to submit to regular testing.

More results are expected over the weekend.

In the meantime, the province is working with the leaders of all regional health authorities to break through the myths and misinformation out there that are causing vaccine hesitancy.

That effort is centred around "the science behind the effectiveness of the vaccine to allay the fears of individuals," Gordon said.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon says the province is working with the leaders of all regional health authorities to break through the myths and misinformation causing vaccine hesitancy. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Asked how concerned she is, after 19 months of pandemic, that there are still health-care professionals willing to walk off the job rather than get vaccinated or regularly tested, Gordon said she is not focused on shaming or blaming.

"This is a time for compassion and kindness and listening and understanding," she said.

"What I say to those individuals is we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in terms of helping you to navigate some of the issues around the unwillingness to be vaccinated or tested."

Shared Health has been more assertive in its language to the health workers.

Aside from being immediately placed on unpaid leave, unvaccinated workers who do not abide submit to regular testing have been told they will receive no pension contributions and not be permitted to access any vacation, sick, stat or overtime banks for the duration of the leave.

Asked about that, Gordon simply acknowledged it addresses "the spirit and language in the public health order."

Regarding how prepared the province is to address staffing shortfalls, Gordon said many contingency plans are being looked at and one of those is to make family members aware that their assistance may be required at care homes.

In a letter sent out by Salem Home care home in Winkler earlier this week, families of residents are being asked to consider volunteering to do laundry, feed residents, clean their rooms, dress them and brush their teeth, and create activity plans for residents.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that will be the case but we certainly wanted to make the family members aware that is one of the contingency plans we may need to put in place," Gordon said, adding she planned to meet with officials from the Southern Health region Friday to discuss contingency plans.

Gordon was asked why those plans aren't already in place, rather than waiting to the last minute. She said the province has several draft plans ready but they are in "a state of flux" because it depends on where the greatest need will be come Monday.

Like Salem Home, the Morden-based care home Tabor Home sent a letter to families on Thursday advising them to be ready to be called upon for help.

"If we do not have enough staff, we may have to go one-step further and ask that you would take your loved one home to look after them," the letter states.

Jane Curtis, CEO of the Southern Health region in Manitoba, said arrangements are being made, from tweaking food menus at care homes if there is a shortage of kitchen staff, to preparing to shuffle other workers around the region as needed. (CBC)

Vaccine uptake is lowest in southern Manitoba, where both of those care homes are located. The percentage of people with at least one COVID-19 vaccine in Southern Health is 67.1 per cent, compared to the provincial average of 86.1 per cent.

Winkler and the surrounding rural municipality of Stanley have the lowest uptakes of fully vaccinated individuals at 42.9 per cent and 24.8 per cent, respectively.

Southern Health's CEO Jane Curtis said the health region is primarily focused on the Salem and Tabor care homes for getting staff on board with the new mandate, but "there are pockets across our region and we're working at all of our sites to make sure that we're talking to staff."

A number of arrangements are being made, from tweaking food menus at care homes for simpler recipes in the event there is a shortage of kitchen staff, to preparing to shuffle staff around sites as needed.

"These are all things that are in the wings. We are not implementing them until we know we have to, but everyone is sort of prepared to do that," Curtis said.

She was asked about the requests for families to help out at understaffed personal-care homes and if bringing in so much outside help risks spreading the coronavirus.

Curtis said everyone allowed in must be fully vaccinated or regularly tested and that's better than no help at all. She also made it clear that no family will be required to help, only those with the capacity to do so.

"We would never put a family into a position where they'd have to come in but we do know there are families out there that would be willing to and happy to," she said.

"I just want to say to those families that we will take care of their loved ones."

The new public health orders, which come into effect Oct. 18, apply to provincial employees working in health care, long-term care, schools, daycares, in emergency services and with vulnerable populations. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Bartley Kives

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